“Everything else has been taken away from him, or might be taken at any minute: work, money, food, a place to sleep, friends, lovers, freedom, life. None of these things can be assured. All are at the mercy of the economic system”
Waiting for Nothing, by Tom Kromer, was first published in 1935, republished in 1968, and is now the first novel to come out from a new imprint – the common breath. You may find out more here about why they are ‘bringing a neglected work, a “genuine literary classic”, back to at least some form of prominence in this country’.
The story follows a man, Tom, who has been left destitute by America’s Great Depression. It is a stark and deeply affecting tale of a life devoid of hope, and yet the narrator – it is written in the first person – struggles on, fighting against the odds to survive. Each chapter chronicles one aspect of Tom’s daily, troubling experiences over the course of several years.
The voice adopted has a vernacular that serves to set the down and outs – the ‘stiffs’ – apart from those who can still afford food, shelter, and clothing that keeps them warm and dry.
The stiffs spend their time trying to acquire the few cents needed to pay for a meagre meal and a dirty bunk in a flop house. The parks are full of those who fail in this endeavour and must bed down, whatever the weather, on a newspaper covered bench. Many turn to the ‘missions’ – churches that serve bad stew, made from going off food, and a lice ridden bed in exchange for attendance at a lengthy religious service where the starving will be exhorted to turn to Jesus Christ. Anyone complaining will be told they harbour Satan and then banished to the streets.
What is being presented is a graphic picture of the life Tom is leading, with no prospect of change. He is hungry and cold – carrying an ache in his empty belly on feet barely covered by falling apart shoes. He exists on the margins of a society that chooses to turn away from the discomfort of the destitute in their midst. Many blame the vagrants for their predicament, ignoring the fact that not enough jobs exist for them to earn their keep.
Tom reaches a point where he can see no way forward other than to break the law – planning an attack on a man with money in his wallet, or holding up a bank. Should Tom be caught he may be killed by the police, which would, he considers, at least be an end to his suffering. It is clear that a man in such circumstances places little value on life. And yet the deaths he observes – the starved, hypothermic, suicidal – still affect him.
The police treat the ‘stiffs’ with violence and contempt. On a cold wet night, when several are sleeping in an empty building, the police arrest them for trespass. Wherever the desperate and hungry gather they are moved on, despite having nowhere they can go that is more acceptable.
Long lines of grey and sunken people, kept queuing for hours outside a mission, are gawped at by passers by – a dehumanised spectacle that serves to make the church appear compassionate.
Both men and women offer sexual favours for the chance of a warm meal and a bed. Sometimes the vagrants help each other when they have found food or shelter, but there are also those who will take even the few cents available via force and threats.
The breaks Tom tells of are few: a friend offering a space on the floor of his room on a cold night, a woman offering to cook the scant food they have bartered and will share. Attacks feature more regularly – from both the authorities and the unhinged. Tom goes begging in restaurants and from those who look to have plenty. Mostly he is rejected – a pest people wish to eradicate from their vicinity.
Tom travels by jumping on board moving, freezing trains – a dangerous pursuit but the only way to try for better elsewhere. Wherever he stops there is rejection.
The writing is taut and visceral – somehow vividly detached yet also deeply personal. There is deliberate repetition in the narration that brings home how desperate Tom’s situation remains. The events he recounts are horrific in the cruelty inflicted and threats faced. Given the times we are currently living through I can only hope this tale is not prescient.
A powerful evocation of life amongst those most damaged by a widespread economic downturn. It is a timely reminder to treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves if reduced to similar circumstances – a recommended read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, the common breath