Ron Kolm writes with a remarkable eye for detail and personality. He also often writes with the tone of a man who can’t quite believe he’s still alive. Certainly, his latest book Night Shift strongly implies that he is a man who can tell you where to find the best taco trucks beyond the gates of hell. Few writers working today can combine dry, almost weary observational wit with steady, charming wisdom.
There is no doubt that Kolm has come to his wisdom honestly. A bright guy to begin with, Night Shift blends that natural intelligence with sparse, almost vicious prose that depicts life in the spaces between the various modes of fringe living. On the back of the book, Alan Kaufman makes the bold claim that this book can stand alongside “wage-slave masterpieces” like American Splendor. He’s not wrong.
What makes Night Shift such a compulsory read, beyond the concrete cool that Kolm brings to even his weirdest passages, is the confidence Kolm has in his storytelling tendencies. Stories that reach into the past have to be both generous with the vivid details, but quick-paced enough to ensure we never get bored with the writer falling in love with their own nostalgia. This is not a fun walk across the dental floss that carries you from one endless skyscraper to the other, a million miles above the blistering pavement. If Kolm struggles with that balance, you wouldn’t know it. He knows the story he wants to tell. He never fails to present just the right level of essential detail. A good example of these talents can be found in “Damaged Goods”, which appears towards the end of the book. The account involves Kolm, an extremely large, alcoholic woman, and a bewildering oral sex enthusiast, moonlighting as a cab driver.
The entire story of “Damaged Goods” revolves around trying to get this very large woman, who is of course going by the name Mitzi, out of the cab, and into her apartment. This is difficult, owing to the woman’s weight, physical condition (which includes osteoporosis), and drunken stupor. The story itself is just a few pages. You can read it in about ten minutes. However, I’m willing to be that you’re going to read it a couple of times. The story isn’t a jaw-dropper. It’s not so fantastic, you seriously question if Ron Kolm might be full of shit. It doesn’t aspire to be either of those things. Kolm simply has a lot of faith that this small, savage story is worth telling. It is. He has faith in his ability to paint a picture that goes well beyond being merely vivid.
As well he should. Ron Kolm is one of America’s great curators of vintage New York strange. He is a poet, and he is a humorist whose slight bitterness is a beautiful asset. Night Shift is his best collection thus far.