David A. Beronä: Waiting for Nothing by Tom Kromer. As far back as I can remember, I have enjoyed reading diaries, journals, and autobiographies and have sought distinct works that expose lifestyles that encourage me to discover a different way of viewing the world. Some early autobiographies that expanded my world were by Henry Miller, Ned Rorem, Vaslav Nijinsky, Charles Bukowski, Alexander Trocchi, David Wojnarowicz, and Tom Kromer.
It is Waiting for Nothing, the only book published by the American Tom Kromer (1906−1969), that I found especially disturbing when I discovered it in my mid-20s. It is a book that I have returned to every few years for its unapologetic honesty and truth. It was first published in 1935 by Alfred A. Knopf, reissued by Hill & Wang in 1968, and reprinted as Waiting for Nothing and Other Writings in 1986 by University of Georgia Press.
Although much has been written about the American Depression, few books match the scathing depiction of squalor in the amazingly simple style presented by Kromer. Ironically, the book closest to the spirit of Kromer’s text is Lynd Ward’s monumental wordless graphic novel Vertigo, published in 1937. Both books singularly captured the desperation in the lives of men and women during this era.
In the preface to the Hill & Wang edition, Kromer wrote: “Sometimes I would stay in a town for four or five months doing odd jobs for a room and something to eat. Most of the time I slept and ate in missions, dinged the streets and houses, and used every other racket known to stiffs to get by. I had no idea of getting Waiting for Nothing published, therefore, I wrote it just as I felt it, and used the language that stiffs use even when it wasn’t always the nicest language in the world. Parts of the book were scrawled on Bull Durham papers in box cars, margins of religious tracts in a hundred missions, jails, one prison, railroad sand-houses, flop-houses, and on a few memorable occasions actually pecked out with my two index fingers on an honest-to-God typewriter.”
Kromer’s autobiography is an account of a homeless man moving from one place to another in the hope of finding work. It is told using vernacular of the streets from the 1930s in a striking realistic style of effective short sentences that jab us with disturbing truths. Kromer displays the hopelessness on the streets that changes the lives of men and women who no longer “know what is right or what is wrong.” In a series of short chapters, Kromer exposes disturbing evidence of our inhumanity with tender moments of redemption and was an important book in my life that revealed the need of compassion for others.
Matthew Cheney: I’m writing this a week after the death of a great writer, and so the only possible recommendation I can make is: Read the work of Lucius Shepard. If you’ve never encountered Lucius’s work before, then the place to start is The Best of Lucius Shepard edited by Jonathan Strahan and published by Subterranean Press. The collection gives a good overview of Lucius’s whole career, though because Lucius’s best work was mostly done at novella length, any single-volume collection is inevitably just a sampler. Still, a collection that includes “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule”, “The Jaguar Hunter”, “R&R”, “Only Partly Here”, “Hands Up! Who Wants to Die!”, and others, is among the best short story collections of recent decades. Readers already familiar with Lucius Shepard’s work should seek out The Dragon Griaule, which collects a series of stories that are impressive on their own and breathtaking together. Of course, there’s a lot else that could be recommended, too — I’m especially fond of his late novellas Floater and Viator, the first a kind of hardboiled noir, the latter (particularly in a revised edition published as Viator Plus) a tale of fecund surrealism that contains some of Lucius’s most majestic sentences — and he wrote many a majestic sentence.
Lillie Elliot: Photographs Not Taken: A Collection of Photographers’ Essays, edited by Will Steacy. A fascinating look into the mind of the photographer.
Case Hathaway-Zepeda: Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. I’m a huge fan of Atwood’s “speculative fictions” as she constantly re-imagines the world’s future. She helps me PAY ATTENTION to the here and now while also considering alternative mental and emotional realities of day-to-day life.
Mikki Kendall: The first time I read For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, by Ntozake Shange, and realized that I didn’t have to tell stories to suit any traditional model. I’ve been finding my own way ever since.
D. F. Lewis: Rameau’s Nephew by Denis Diderot. This work is about me. Or what I would like to be. I recently reviewed it here.
Frans Masereel: Song of Myself, by Walt Whitman. “This is the city and I am one of the citizens,/ Whatever interests the rest interests me, politics, wars, markets, newspapers, schools,/ The mayor and councils, banks, tariffs, steamships, factories, stocks, stores, real estate and personal estate.”
Njihia Mbituru: Alfred Bester’s, The Stars My Destination. Synaesthesia. Lead into gold and back. Prose that bends and twists back in on itself (and on the page too). Dread. Heat. Vertiginous delight. Foyle in his floating closet at the beginning of the novel, adrift and alone, full of a rage impossible for a single body to contain yet which is sustained through the novel and out past its completely beguiling end. Reading this fine book is everytime for me like doing a headstand on a unicycle on a tightrope while juggling fragmentation grenades. It seems that something is already going wrong — that is, counter to the general run of aesthetic pleasures you get from a book — and that therefore one ought to stop, or implode. But of course that does not happen because the opposite feels equally true: this is, you begin to suspect, the singular reading experience — that Plato is right and there are Forms and the point-to-point parity of reader and text — of this wonderful book and me, is that of ideal Reader and Ideal Book. And then the book’s over, and I’m not sure anymore. Every time. In fact, I’m not the same person I was, and to figure out the how and why of it I’d have to read the book again, test this new guy’s impressions and assessments against the other one, the man who began the book. And to do that, is to be changed again, and again. But really it’s just a great, great book, sloppy & and dashdownily corny in parts but so fun and daring I generally don’t care. And like all great books its scenes, images, set pieces, locales & characters become as memory, indistinguishable from those of your own life. Gully Foyle’s adventures are yours, and perhaps a little of the man himself too, and he is you.
Richard Bowes: The Grove Press Dirty Book of the Year (1962−64). I forget who applied the “Dirty Book” label. Time Magazine, the then home of prurient titillation, seems a likely suspect. Grove had already blown the censors’ doors open with Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1959) and Tropic of Cancer (1961). I don’t know what Grove was up to in 1960. But D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, a generation and more after their books geneses seemed old fashioned and stale to a U.S. teenager looking, as adolescents do, for a reflection of himself. The next three years, though, provided the shock of recognition and then some.
(1962) Naked Lunch by William Burroughs: Whatever, for good or ill, this book was supposed to do to the American Psyche, what it gave me was the enduring lesson that one could write what one wanted the way one wanted and let the world be damned.
(1963) City of Night by John Rechy: His world of tragic camp and hustlers bound to near-chivalric codes of macho conduct was operatic and over-the-top. But the Street and the Meat Rack were central to gay life when all was illegal. Here they were treated not as fleeting hallucinations but as coast-to-coast reality.
(1964) Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr.: Film Noir meets Hyperrealism: drags, drugs, dumb studs. A world so unlike my glimpses of the New York City of 1964 — The Village and Uptown Skyscrapers — that it felt like some Weegee 1940’s past. Its currency only hit me after I moved here.
Eric Schaller: Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse. I have reread this short novel many times. It is one of the few works that has inspired me to be a better person than I am, moving me to action from inaction in surprising ways (none of which I will reveal here).
Brian Francis Slattery: “I Remember Clifford” is really one of the most beautiful melodies around.