June 11, 2009
. . . “Poor useless boy—I’d rather have his hate than some fat square-fig’s love,” [Algren's main character] Beth-Mary says. “Love or hate, whatever, it don’t matter so long as it’s real. My daddy’s hate is realer than any old square-fig’s love. His hate is more beautiful, I think, than love. Because it’s what he truly feels.”
Beth-Mary is based on a woman named Margo, a lover of Algren’s who was addicted to heroin and had been a prostitute to support her habit. There was always a journalistic distance to Algren’s early work. He was the college-educated square, inspecting lineups at the police station, huddling in doorways with junkies, but never using heroin. By falling in love with Margo, he became entangled in the underworld he so dispassionately chronicled.
. . . Editors Brooke Horvath and Dan Simon, of Seven Stories Press, are like the racetrack “stoopers” Algren wrote about in the story “Stoopers and Shoeboard Gazers.” Just as stoopers walk around the track, looking for winning tickets thrown out by mistake, Horvath and Simon have combed through Algren’s old papers, hoping to find unpublished gems. What they find, instead, is a written record that Algren’s talent persisted long after his desire to use it burned out.
. . . Entrapment and Other Writings isn’t Algren at his best. It’s not even washed-up Algren at his best. But it’s not bad writing by a good author, either. Even in his most casual pieces, Algren was still funny, acerbic and bitterly aware of how the powerful exploit the powerless. Entrapment is more distressing than bad writing. It gives us a glimpse of what we missed out on after a thoroughbred of American literature spit the bit.
There’s certainly room for disagreement with this review—some of the pieces in Entrapment, notably “The Lightless Room”, absolutely represent Algren at his best, and Algren readers from Jan Herman to Lou Reed might be upset to learn that “after winning the National Book Award for The Man with the Golden Arm in 1949, Algren never again produced an important book.” Insofar as the review addresses the growing literary legend of Nelson Algren, though—the long apprenticeship to writing while working in a desert gas station, the success of Man with the Golden Arm, the subsequent political repression, the sudden disappearance from the critical radar; all the Joseph Campbell points are there—it’s a welcome step in the long staircase of Algren’s coming critical resurgence.
And more than anything, it’s an invitation to consider what Nelson Algren’s work—even his neglected work—still offers. Algren’s bitter awareness of “how the powerful exploit the powerless” is something that contemporary fiction needs more now than ever.