Duke & Jill, a collection of short stories by Ron Kolm
Reviewed by George Spencer
“You probably knew Duke and Jill at some point. They might have lived down the hall from you back in the day. Maybe you didn’t like them, or maybe you did. Maybe they scored for you, or you for them. Poet and literary impresario Ron Kolm represents this classic East Village trouble couple with the deadpan élan of a bohemian raconteur looking back from the other side of nowheresville.”
—Carl Watson, author of Hotel of Irrevocable Acts and Backwards the Drowned Go Dreaming
Ron Kolm’s book of interconnected short stories, Duke & Jill (Unknown Press, 2015), begins with the short declarative sentence: “Duke and Jill do drugs.” The events in these stories are centered around that fact; they’re filled with descriptions of the direct and collateral damage drugs do to them, as lovers and partners-in-crime, and to those around them. This all happens in that time, the ‘70s/’80s, when the variously designated Lower East Side, East Village, Alphabet City was a war zone — it was also a cradle of artistic freedom with the resultant creativity that came from it, but that’s another story.
Throughout most of this short book the nasty is king and the nice is very hard to find. Duke, perhaps more than a little like people Ron knew from back in those days, sells books and other stuff on the street, and then peddles drugs when the under-covers and the blue on the beat are not looking. Jill occasionally finds slightly more conventional employment. And while all this is going on, their best friend steals all their stuff, the TV set, stereo and everything else. Enraged, Duke buys a .38. A crypto-punk friend shows up. Duke points the gun at the ceiling. Click. The crypto-punk points the gun at a boarded up window. Click. Points the gun at his temple. Pulls the trigger. “A bright flash of orange bounces around the nearly empty room.” Now the friend is a dead crypto-punk. All this in less than three pages. One can imagine Hemingway in heaven sitting in a bear skin covered chair under moose antlers thinking: I gotta find the unnecessary words. He’s still looking.
Of course Duke & Jill can be read as a parody of economic and social life as lived under Late Capitalism in the early years of the 21st Century when Wall Street traders manufactured and dealt in synthetic securities with mezzanine tranche and unfunded long investors and swaps were everywhere — the regulators appearing and disappearing with no noticeable effect on Street life and mores.
Perhaps this is what the story called ‘The Mergatroyds Leave Town’ is about. Everything is juiced up like a synthetic security. Jill wants some action. They go big time. Duke bullshits his way into a no down payment purchase of a mega-load of coke. Sells some and some goes up their noses and the rest is flushed. There was a stakeout on the corner. Or was there? If this was the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) they might end up in The Federal Correctional Complex, Mangum Township, North Carolina.
Instead Duke and Jill leave town, return and become active as artists and fashion designers. Jill ditches Duke. And thus it goes.
The last story in the book. ‘Notes to Myself,’ involves some apt quotes from Hugh Prather, an ascension and epiphany.
Kolm’s locale is as gone as the pre-gentrifiers who lived in that world. Now the Lower East Side, East Village, Alphabet City is clearly high-end. So this is a story of expansion and contraction as Kolm sees it or contraction and expansion as the hedgies see it. In the end Duke & Jill is about the lives of two people at a point in history and also a stinging parody of events that have repeated themselves throughout American history. The pioneers create and then the spongers sponge. That these things repeat themselves is a tragedy. Kolm’s book tries to make sense of what went down.
The book is barely over 100 pages. But each page has one or more gem-like understatements. The characters, in their way, are loveable. It’s a wonderful read written by a literary craftsman. One hopes for more books like this. And soon.
Originally appeared in Urban Graffiti