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Guest review by Zach Barnett

Orrinís review of The Man with the Golden Arm has gotten me to ask the question, "Must I agree with the authorís politics to appreciate and value his or her writing?"   But then I approach the stairwell of this speculation and find the Brothersjudd founder asleep with a die in his ear and I remember I live down the street in the house with the doors and windows.

So, letís then take another look at Algren and his writing.

First, whether you agree with a damn thing Algren says, you canít help but be blown away by his craft.  His writing is a thing of raw, naked power.  Having  invested nights and nights in the back of a Chicago precinct listening to the patter of lies, confessions and delusions of the usual suspects, Algrenís dialogue is a sweet and exacting science.  There is a fight going on and he is the referee, and someone is being bloodied and he is not going to blow the whistle, not going to interfere, and you are waiting and thinking, "break it up ? why wonít you break it up?"  And then you look down and find your wallet is gone and youíve been cut ? badly ? and it is your blood on the barroom floor.

Neon Wilderness, his collection of short stories, is a testament to the development of this approach.  And whereas Orrinís take on Man with the Golden Arm is that Algren sees his subjects as victims, Wilderness takes on the transition to true observer, unattached to outcomes, and in this way,  letís whatever irony or sadness blossom in the cracks of the sidewalk.   Whether you choose to trample or pluck it, thatís up to you.  Either way, the thing is a liviní, thieviní, blunderiní testament to one of the most gifted and forgotten writers in American History.  The man was a hell of good writer.

What also needs to be said is that Algren is not your usual liberal Dreiser intellectual.  He did not believe in carousing with other writers, although he did have a long, love letter thing going with the French writer, Simone de Beauvoir ? and she dedicated a book to him.  His real love was the poker  table and the horse track.  And ? it goes without saying ? these were affairs that took more than they gave.

Which leads to the other fact about Nelson Algren.  He was a con man.  Always in debt, he became a tireless and somewhat dishonest hustler within the publishing circles.  Winner of the first National Book Award, Algren was a popular draw on the magazine circuit.  However, he became renowned for  retreading his works ? for making short stories out of chapters of his novels  ? and vice versa.  His short story, The Captain has Bad Dreams, became the basis for Man with the Golden Arm.  The final scene of A Walk on the Wild Side is a remake of his short, The Face on the Barroom Floor.  And so on.   Which I find amusing and admirable. He eventually ended up in a little shack down on the Lake Michigan shore.

As for me, I first looked into Algren in í89 having found mention of him in my favorite cult book, Troutfishing in America.  In it, Richard Brautigan proposes  that he and his friends pack an old legless wino named Troutfishing in America Shorty in a crate and ship him to Nelson Algren in Chicago.

For me, the issue with Nelson Algren is not his politics, but the politics of a literary establishment that has chosen to desert him.  I was a literature major at Colgate and my professors didnít mentioned Algren.  Maybe he pissed them off. Maybe his choice to not suck publishing house ----- made him an  undesirable.  Most likely, it was Algrenís subject matter that made them uncomfortable.  Thatís hard to believe unless theyíre really a bunch of fat, yapping phonies.

Letís check it off as another reason to tra-la-la into Lawrence Hall with a six of Mickyís and a bullwhip.

See Orrin's review of The Man with The Golden Arm

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

See also:

Nelson Algren (2 books reviewed)
General Literature
Nelson Algren Links:

    -ESSAY: Nelson Algren's secret: The true story behind "City on the Make": Algren adapted some of his most important descriptions of Chicago from a New Yorker's description of New York (Jeff McMahon, Newcity Chicago)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Nelson Algren (1909-1981) - original name Nelson Ahlgren Abraham (kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "nelson algren"
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Algren, Nelson
    -NELSON ALGREN (The Biography Project, Pop Subculture)
    -Walk on the Wildside (BBC)
    -ESSAY: NELSON ALGREN: THE MESSAGE STILL HURTS (Russell Banks, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Chicago Guy: Nelson Algren (John Sayles, Conjunctions)
    -ESSAY: From the Vagrant to the Fugitive: Institutional Models in Nelson Algren's Somebody in Boots. (Robert Ward, School of English, University of Leeds)
    -ESSAY: A LITERARY ROMANCE SADLY AHEAD OF ITS TIME (Jason Berry, Chicago Tribune)
    -ESSAYS: Bruce A. Toor; Bettina Drew; Art Shay; Studs Terkel: Nelson Algren: An Exchange (NY Review of Books)
    -PHOTO: Art Shay photographs of old Maxwell Street (1950s).  Nelson Algren and Marcel Marceau on Maxwell Street, at the Saxophone kazoo stand
    -DISCUSSION: Nelson Algren:   FAVORITE AUTHORS Discussion Deck (Jolly Roger)
    -REVIEW: of The Man with the Golden Arm  By Nelson Algren (Eric Dean Rasmussen, Authors Review of Books, about.com)
    -REVIEW: of The Man with the Golden Arm (Twisted Web)
    -REVIEW: Thomas R. Edwards: Underground Man, NY Review of Books
       Never Come Morning by Nelson Algren
       The Neon Wilderness by Nelson Algren
       The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren and introduction by James R. Giles
       A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren and foreword by Russell Banks
       Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side by Bettina Drew
       Confronting the Horror: The Novels of Nelson Algren by James R. Giles
       Nelson Algren's Chicago photographs by Art Shay
    -REVIEW: of THE DEVIL'S STOCKING by Nelson Algren (John W. Aldridge, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A TRANSATLANTIC LOVE AFFAIR Letters to Nelson Algren. By Simone de Beauvoir (Mim Udovitch, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Nelson Algren A Life on the Wild Side By Bettina Drew (HERBERT MITGANG, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of NELSON ALGREN A Life on the Wild Side. By Bettina Drew (James Atlas, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side By Bettina Drew (Scott Rettberg, Authors Review of Books, about.com)

FILM:
    -BUY IT: VHS (Amazon)
    -INFO: Man with the Golden Arm, The (1955) (Internet Movie Database)

Comments:

We love Nelson Algren. Why don't more people read him? Basically, they're looking for tripe like those worthless books written by that dingaling (fraud & mental midget) Michael Moore, or else they're being conned by some idiotic self-help nonsense, or some diet book (because they're too lazy to get off the couch)... I could go on...why bother? It takes a bit of intelligence (as well as patience) to get Algren...and these days that's a bit too much to ask of your readers (who preffer to sit in front of the idiot box and watch some mindless sitcom like Friends). That's what I said: mindless. Most of what's on tv (tv doesn't deserve caps in my opinion) is mindless, and it is poisoning people's brains. Neon Wilderness is a gem; Man With the Golden Arm is a true classic. Algren was as great as Hemingway.

- K.A.

- Feb-13-2004, 07:31

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