The Reading Room

Waiting for Nothing

Waiting for Nothing by Tom Kromer

I first became aware of Tom Kromer’s only novel via an independent Scottish based publishing company called The Common Breath, Originally published in 1935 by Alfred Knopff it has been brought back to life with an introduction by the author Duncan McLean and an intriguing cover design by Mark Mechan of Red Axe Design.

Set in America during the time of the Great Depression, Kromer brings to the reader a semi-autobiographical tale of life as a hobo, battling poverty, the elements and societal prejudices to survive an unimaginable existence. A novel it may be but there is a stark truth in the lines, and in Kromer, we have a storyteller who writes from hard gotten experience.

From the opening pages we are reminded of the luxury most of us have in the ability to acquire, cook and eat food. Whilst levels of quality and quantity vary, seldom few, or any of us reading this or Kromer’s book will, mercifully ever truly know what it means to be starving. To stop and stare at a man eating a chicken and to yearn for a morsel, yet Kromer manages to convey that desperation so brilliantly for us to feel that sense of hunger and realise our own good fortune.

I was immediately reminded of Orwell and Solzhenitsyn as the narrator describes the desperate search for an old burlap sack to take refuge in from the driving rain until the heavy fist of the law drags him from his deep sleep to a jail cell with two drunks, a vomit strewn floor and a rancid stew. We are delivered a masterclass in the art of tramping in a James Cagney hard-boiled prose, men are ‘stiffs’ lucky not to be beaten up by the fantasist whose cowardice drives him to survive. He seeks out others such as he, risks his life to jump the freight trains in search of blue skies and a less miserable existence:

We huddle in a bunch. There is a pile of tar paper on the floor. We tear this up into small pieces and light it. The flames flicker up and light up our faces, grimy and sunken. The black smoke roars up and fills the car. We crouch around this fire and choke for breath. We do not mind the smoke if we can get a little heat. We stomp on the floor with our numbed feet. We swing our hands back and forth. We are just a box-carful of frozen stiffs. We do not make a pretty picture with our redrimmed eyes and our sunken cheeks. We do not care whether we make a pretty picture or not. What we want is to get warm. I take off my shoes. I hold one of my numbed feet over the flames. I cannot feel the flame that burns my foot, but I hold it there until my sock is scorched and burning. Then I change to the other foot. Back and forth, back and forth,’

There are many great books set during the period of the Great Depression, Kromer’s book is a mere hundred and thirty eight pages yet it captures the time, place and the plight of the downtrodden as brilliantly as most. There are lessons to be learned from history, what Kromer manages to achieve in such a short space is to demand a sense self-reflection from the reader. That such hardship could and did land on many who least expected it is indeed a timely reminder as the economic cost of a global pandemic is yet to fully materialise, Kromer’s story hits home hard, it’s what happens when millions of people lose their jobs and with it their sense of worth, and in Kromer’s case, a sense of place. It’s one of the great novels of the genre and deserves its place alongside the very best of them.

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