Saturday, April 25, 2009

Remembering a Chicago Writer

In thinking about a forthcoming tribute to Studs Terkel here in Chicago at a great club called Metro, I returned to this piece about Nelson Algren. A shorter version appeared in BOOKLIST last month on the 100th anniversary of Algren's birth.

Another Look At: Nelson Algren

Nelson Algren, champion of the underdogs of the underworld, is a great underrated American writer. In spite of receiving the first National Book Award for fiction––presented to him by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1950 for The Man with The Golden Arm, a novel of poverty, drugs, and desperation––he was maligned as vulgar and sensational, dismissed by Leslie Fielder as “the bard of the stumblebum.” Briskly forgotten after his death in 1981, his unnerving books promptly went out-of-print. Yet readers the world over recognized the power of his gritty, unflinching tales, books akin to those of Theodore Dreiser, Richard Wright, and John Steinbeck. Thanks to the efforts of writers and critics, his books have been republished. And now, at the centennial of his birth, Nelson Algren is resurgent when we need him the most.

Of Swedish, German, and Jewish descent, he was born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham in Detroit on March 28, 1909, and grew up in Chicago, where his father worked as a machinist. Algren graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in journalism during the Great Depression, and hit the road in search of work in Louisiana and Texas. Inspired by Baudelaire, Tolstoy, and Dostovesky, Algren began writing short stories, later collected in The Neon Wilderness (1946) and The Last Carousel (1973). His first novel, Somebody in Boots, came out in 1935. Algren remained immersed in Chicago’s poor neighborhoods. The streets, bars, backrooms, and courts were his theater, the jails and police stations his libraries. And then his second novel, Never Come Morning (1942), hit like a bomb.

Set on the meanest streets of Chicago’s Polish American community, Never Come Morning is the brutally intense story of Bruno “Lefty” Bicek, a poor, bewildered bruiser trapped in a net of lies, violence, crime, and gangs. Grim and disturbing, the novel is nonetheless alight with radioactive lyricism and caustic humor. It also evinces a startling intimacy with thugs, con artists, and the cramped, filthy bars and jail cells they frequent. A self-described “up close” writer, Algren wrote from direct experience. He was a compulsive gambler, a regular at various dives, and had done time. For stealing a typewriter.

Never Come Morning infuriated that powers-that-be in Chicago, resulting in a call to ban the novel from public libraries. Algren eventually addressed Chis hometown’s rabid disapproval in Chicago: City on the Make (1951), a heady and lacerating prose-poem condemning his two-faced, hustlers’ town. But first, radical and irreverent Algren bucked the button-up mode of the McCarthy era and fed his fat FBI dossier as he persisted in revealing the truth about humankind’s inhumanity in his next unforgettable Chicago novel, The Man with the Golden Arm.

Everything goes wrong for Frankie Machine, a poker dealer, a junkie, and a slum Job. He lives wretchedly with wheelchair-bound Sophie, her plight his fault. Theirs is a “world of petty cheats, phony braggarts, double clockers, elbow sneaks, small-time chiselers, touts and stooges and glad-hand-shakers,” and all the down-and-outers suffer from the “great, secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one. . .Their very lives gave off a certain jailhouse odor: it trailed down the streets of Skid Row behind them till the city itself seemed some sort of open-roofed jail.”

In the posthumously published Nonconformity: Writing on Writing, Algren states, “A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery.” Self-deprecating and ironic, an avid listener and a stalwart witness, Algren was of the underworld, yet separate from it. His balancing act is evocatively captured in Art Shay’s Chicago’s Nelson Algren (2007), a book of striking photographs and candid reminiscences. A buddy of Algren’s, Shay carried a concealed camera on their peregrinations and caught the writer, his brow speared by a widow’s peak, his eyes protected by glasses and bright with sadness, intently watching moments of mayhem, respectful and rueful. Algren stored it all up and wrote it all down in a feverish torrent of compassion and outrage, bemusement and sorrow.

A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), the novel he was most proud of, is set in Texas and New Orleans, in boxcars and brothels. A brilliantly crafted anti-bildungsroman, it stars Dove Linkhorn, first seen in Somebody in Boots. Here Dove is a rambling, illiterate country boy looking to earn a living among pimps and prostitutes. Expansive, poetic, ribald, and roguishly funny, Algren’s darkly picaresque tale grapples with issues of race, sex, and class.

A night owl, Algren loved cats, and kept in shape by pounding on a boxing bag. Ripped off when he sold the film rights, he despised the movie version of The Man with the Golden Arm, which won Frank Sinatra an Oscar. The women in his edgy fiction are as tough as the men, and usually smarter. Algren was married three times, twice to the same gal. He was deeply in love with trailblazing French philosopher, writer, and feminist Simone de Beauvoir, who broke his heart.

Increasingly embittered and destructive, Algren wrote poisonous satire about New York’s literary establishment and devilishly outlandish and critical travel pieces. He left Chicago for New Jersey to work on his last novel, The Devil’s Stocking (1983), based on the murder trial of the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and made new enemies. He found sanctuary in Sag Harbor, and after he was finally elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, he planned a cocktail party to celebrate on May 9, 1981. Kurt Vonnegut hoped to bring Salmon Rushdie along, since Algren had reviewed Midnight’s Children. But when Vonnegut called Algren’s house, a police officer answered. Algren was dead, done in by a massive heart attack in a house full of unopened bottles of booze.

Algren was angry at being misunderstood and angry at being unable to help the people he wrote about. He was burdened with his knowledge of lost innocence and endless guilt, unredeemed trust and secret fear, strangled hopes and cancelled joy, beauty twisted and tattered, life bought and sold. We mark the 100th anniversary of Algren’s birth while experiencing the worst loss of jobs and homes since the Great Depression, during an economic collapse driven by the very greed, lies, and corruption he condemned, a crisis delivering the same soul-killing suffering he railed against. Nelson Algren’s electrifying prose, steely-eyed vision, marksman humor, and tough compassion speak today with renewed vigor and resonance.

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