July 30, 2009
The problem with a writer like Nelson Algren — a writer who’s at once so good and so inexplicably forgotten — is this: how do you get readers to remember how good he is? We’re talking about a writer whose core beliefs include the statement that “I can see no purpose in writing about people who have won everything” — but in America in the 1950s, the book-buying public had won everything, and Algren — and the seething, fantastic underbelly of America he chronicled — faded from their sight.
Now, in 2009, it’s becoming harder than ever for America to ignore the total disparity between the wealthy and the poor, and Algren’s stories of people on their way down and out of an American state of grace have become more important than ever. But a writer like Algren is still competing against the idea — paraphrasing Dylan — that failure’s no success at all. Is Algren being viewed as the living voice he is, or as someone dead on a page?
The double review of Entrapment and Other Writings in Stop Smiling is a hopeful sign. When writing about Algren, it’s hard to avoid writing exclusively about Algren’s legend, and the words “tragic” and “outsider” appear prominently in the reviews. But so does this, from Beth Capper:
Chicago is always at the center of things in Algren’s work. It is a city he both loved and despised. Algren’s capacity for explaining its appeals and pitfalls is perhaps why he is so adored by its residents, and why his word on Chicago has become the final one.
The book’s title work, “Entrapment,”. . . contains a couple of firsts for Algren: it is his only novel to be written in the first-person — a technique he used for countless stories but never a full length novel — and it is his first written entirely from a female perspective. While Algren can be considered a precursor to Kerouac, his depictions of women, if a little naive, eschew misogyny for complexity and affection. Even though women are bit-players in many of his stories, they are bit-players with their own faces, voices and words. Two long chapters from the novel are excerpted in this collection, both of which are so tantalizing one wishes he had finished it.
. . . just as the book starts to lull, Algren comes out swinging with prose so shattering that it makes the whole read worthwhile. Such writing demonstrates that the America Algren canonizes is both nostalgic and ever-present, as though if you scrubbed hard enough at the sidewalk on Chicago’s Division Street — now lined with fashionable boutiques, cafes and condos — you might see the scuffed heels of the prostitutes he was so fond of writing about.
And this, from Gretchen Kalwinski:
Lefty writer Nelson Algren never escaped his outsider reputation, even despite winning the first National Book Award for The Man with the Golden Arm. . . But then, Algren’s work — which travels the terrain of (mostly-Chicago) prostitutes, bookies, pimps, and junkies — isn’t an easy sell. Even Studs Terkel called Algren’s work “just too gritty” for a mass audience. . . .
[But] readers will still find lyrical gems like this one in “Ain’t Nobody on my Side?” in which Algren bah-humbugs the missile race compared with the plight of a penniless girl arrested for narcotics: “They tell me…the nation whose flag is first planted in the moon will inherit the earth. Yet I feel the race is not for the skies, but for the hearts of men. Not amidst meteorite and star, but in those forests of furnished rooms behind the billboards… when the innocent man must prove his innocence or stand convicted on the word of an unseen accuser, though we own the moon, we are lost.” Passages like these remind us why we read Algren; more than that, why we need him. And why the true outsiders are those on the other side of the fence.
Kalwinski’s review isn’t altogether positive:
Contemporary readers may stumble on the Entrapment passages where he uses a noir-ish, “daddy-o” jazz-language to render period-specific street poetry to an almost-goofy affect. For example, when defending her pimp “Little Daddy,” Beth-Mary notes, “He may not be the best macker there is. But he is the meanest little old dog of a Daddy in town.” One has to believe passages like this — if the manuscript were ever to be sent out for publication — would be ripe for editorial intervention; they sound not “authentic” but like a drippy pulp novel or SNL skit.
It’s more than possible to disagree with this, obviously. But it’s also, in a way, the most encouraging part of the review. Rather than recapitulating Algren’s legend, Kalwinski is critiquing his prose. Has anyone really critiqued Algren’s prose in a review since the days of Who Lost an American? If you’re a writer, which do you want: to be honored, or to be read? If reviewers are starting to engage with Algren as a writer — as opposed to as the tragic “tin whistle of American letters” — then Algren may yet receive the best hundredth birthday gift of all: renewed life in literary America’s consciousness. If a tin whistle blows long enough, people will start to wake up.
And it’s long overdue — take a look at Entrapment and Other Writings to see why.