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Book Review

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Dorothy Friedman August


NIGHT SHIFT
By Ron Kolm

"I was broken when I worked at the Plastic Factory"
--from NIGHT SHIFT


The thirteen vignettes, short stories and meta-texts that comprise NIGHT SHIFT by Ron Kolm are chronologically arranged and written between 1969 and 2015. The first, "A Philadelphia Story", describes when he worked in a bookstore in Reading, Pennsylvania. Kolm writes that when he tried to encourage customers to read Joyce and Beckett, the book store owner complained "Only bums do that." Maybe Kolm has been a bum all his life or an "unbearable", following in the foot-steps of Kerouac and GInsberg. "The Plastic Factory", the longest story in the collection, is a mini-classic, and echoes GInsberg's visionary critique of America and the falseness of The American Dream.

The world he writes about is Moloch-like, peopled with slaves and unseen masters of autocratic technocracy, those unable to love or communicate even with themselves. As the stories unfold the reader sees characters slip and fall and can add up their scars. In this comic-tragedy of post-fallen man, instead of the Garden of Eden we have a plastic factory and other kinds of hell. Even Allen Ginsberg appears as a mercenary in one story, a hipster businessman, more interested in selling books than being inspirational. Kolm asks the question when should you not go to work and answers when you work in a plastic factory, as he captures the dehumanization of the job and society.

Ron works the night shift in a "pressure cooker room" which manufactures plastic lenses for eyeglasses. It's the most dangerous section of the factory where flammable chemicals can explode at any moment. "If an explosion does occur only two people need disappear," he explains. But Ron and his partner manage to survive before they gag or pass out. This story and others parallel the diffi-culties he has with his marriage, which is like living in another pressure cooker. Job, house, relationship., all portray dysfunction or decay. The factory is situated atop a mountain of rubble. The synthetic ambiance is both real and metaphorical, with its well-lit cafeteria, plastic chairs, fast-food machines and workers paid $3 an hour. It can be compared with Andy Warhol's Factory.

These vivid narratives of self, friends and people he meets are detailed and highly visual. For example, in one scene he writes "The styrene eats away at the rubber soles of their shoes. Gobbles at bare skin. Devours eyeballs." (from "The Plastic Factory") The writing has a con-fessional often comic quality. It makes you want to cry and shout with him, for despite despair, he keeps trucking. He's inside and outside what he experiences and there are no lovers to be found anywhere.

Scary, funny, and autobiographical Kolm takes us on a journey from childhood to adulthood, through a world both real and allegorical, in which protagonist and guide is an Everyman trapped in a materialistic technologically crazed society. In taut unsentimental prose he traverses an impersonal and uncaring universe. Says Kolm "Some of the early pieces depict when I lost control of my life." If it sounds Orwellian, you're on the right track. He's always struggling with the darker forces.

Lehman Weichselbaum

A BOOK OF PIECES
by Robert Roth
And Then Press
2016, 301 pgs, $15

KALI’S DAY
by Bonny Finberg
Autonomedia/Unbearable Book
2014, 251 pgs, $15.95

SNAPSHOTS AND DANCES
by Leslie Prosterman
Golden District Press, 42 pgs, $12

How far does style go? We won’t debate here if the “how” as opposed to the “what” is the whole point of any work of art, word or otherwise, but it indisputably goes a long way, as in notably different ways these three books by local downtown writers demonstrate.
At one end of the style spectrum is A BOOK OF PIECES by Robert Roth, the editor and publisher of the well entrenched New York lit magazine And Then. The work reads more or less like a string of notations from a personal journal, though that’s not always exactly what it is. There are occasional breaks from Roth’s continuum of musings on all matters personal and political, a fully scored miniature opera here, some poems there. But mostly it’s a visible track on an unstoppered thinker and compulsive writer, who, fortunately for him and his readers, nearly always has something to think and say. There are riffs on departed friends and relatives, the insidious nuances of sports, epiphanies of political activism and several pages on the author’s penis. It’s unaffected, in the habit of pure journal keeping, relentlessly candid and casually eloquent. It's a classic example of how no style becomes high style. Roth is as good on long and minute rumination as he is on the all-encapsulating one liner. Re sex, relationships and hard-won caution: “What starts out as friends with benefits often winds up on court [sic] TV.”

At the middle of the spectrum is Bonny Finberg’s KALI’S DAY. It’s a novel of fitful discovery that takes place between New York and Nepal, around a cluster of folks overeducated and underripened. There’s a lot of social and sexual bumping around, with some scenes of violence, in places familiar and (to most readers) exotic, as characters seek happiness and enlightenment too often to no great avail. Finberg’s style in narration and dialog is gabby. Her light touch in self-editing can be read as mere authorial laissez-faire or as an implied commentary on her characters’ habits of chronic, between-the-centuries, overurbanized American drift. Credit, at least, Finberg for loyalty to her characters, whose wobbly gravitas may well have posed challenges to their creator’s persistence, as they markedly test the reader’s. This is the human clay she’s been given—as may be her message--from our contemporary life and times. An exceptional not-quite-high note comes from one character’s tentative, and likely fleeting, burst of insight:

Everything seems ridiculous, including me. Most of all me. All the thoughts and feelings, the actions of this pathetic thing we call our lives, suddenly seem meaningless. Now I know what they mean by "the Grand Scheme of Things." The grand scheme is that there is no scheme. It’s a big shapeless blaze of light and that’s all. It’s a march toward death along a lonely road crowded with mobs of lost people. We might as well take a few nice photographs with our camera phones to remember the good times and hope to end up a little wiser by the time we get there. Maybe that’s true bliss.

If only I could believe that.



















Lehman Weichselbaum Cont...


















At the far end of the scale is Leslie Prosterman’s SNAPSHOTS AND DANCES. True to the book’s title, the poems inside pick up from worlds real and imagined. Precisely because Prosterman knows style and its crafting, it goes a long way in selling the work. In the more personal poems, many evoking “snapshots” of early family life, the rhythms stay loose and narrative, while still closely attending to their inherent music. In the more reaching, less everyday pieces, perhaps paradoxically, the voice tightly spins in on itself for a pinpoint, high-alert verbal choreography. In “The Goddess looks upward from underground:”

On. She toes her body

resolutely, vacillates,
now running,
choosing,
waits, toppling
persistent

gains strength
with every wrong choice,
with each hesitation,
with each wobble
towards something too
formless even to be called failure.
With each misdirected,
miserable,
unknowing

step

grows strong.
Or so she devoutly
prays,
to someone,
asking someone
to ask: Someone,
why do the souls
travel so strangely?