Introduction to the 2023 Edition
The True Jungle, The Neon Wilderness
By Colin Asher
The second-floor cold water flat at 1523 W. Wabansia contained two rooms overlooking an alley and through its windows you could see: a tavern called Lucky Star, a peach tree growing through a crack in a sidewalk, steam rising from the chimney of a yeast factory in the distance. It had no bathroom or refrigerator and there was nothing but an oil stove for heat, but Nelson Algren felt lucky to find it. The apartment met his needs and in two months of searching he’d seen nothing better so he rented it for ten dollars a month.
It was January 1946, and Algren had just returned from the war after two years, four months, and seventeen days in the army. He served stateside and then as a medic in Europe, and now that he was home, in Chicago, he wanted nothing more than the quiet he required to write. He christened his new home his “goat’s nest” and that winter and spring he left it sparingly—to visit the YMCA where he hit the heavy bag and showered, to peddle around on his used Schwinn to reacquaint himself with the city, or to visit the police station at 11th and State to take notes as the chief of detectives questioned arrestees.
Once he was settled, Algren looked through the short fiction he’d written over the previous thirteen years and began to assemble a collection. He was thirty-six years old that winter, but he had already led a few lives. He spent a portion of the Great Depression as a vagabond, train hopping and hitchhiking through the country—at first for survival, then to collect material for a novel. He joined the Communist Party when he returned to Chicago, raised money for the partisans fighting against Franco in Spain, and went to work for the Federal Writers Project; then he was drafted into the army.
Algren had written short stories in each of those phases—eighteen published, many unpublished—and he selected from them judiciously. Few of his earliest pieces survived the winnowing. On the whole, they were earnest and deeply felt but grim and joyless, their protagonists besieged by a hostile world. In one, a child is run over by a train while gathering bits of coal; in another, a drifter becomes trapped inside a freight car and nearly dies. Even his finest work from that period, “Forgive Them, Lord,” didn’t make the cut. It’s the story of a Black World War I veteran who witnesses a lynching, and though the story is masterful, its protagonist leads a life grounded in faith and bears no responsibility for his plight. He’s a victim, and there was no place for them in the collection Algren envisioned. Neither would there be any calls to arms, so he set aside the finely written but strident pieces he had composed during his time in the communist movement. Some of them proffered tidy solutions he had lost faith in—“all the daughters of the poor will rise.”
The focus of Algren’s writing had tightened in recent years, his characters coming to the foreground where he rendered them in indelible detail. His people had not changed—they were still drifters and sex workers and petty thieves—but they had begun to speak directly to each other and to the reader in unguarded voices, bemoaning their circumstances, and confessing their shortcomings, regrets, sins. In one, a woman airs her troubles to “Specs,” an authorial stand-in who listens but never speaks. “I think I’m just the girl that men forget, that’s what,” she says. And in “A Bottle of Milk for Mother,” Bruno Bicek dissembles impotently, condemning himself by inches over the course of an interrogation at the Racine Street Police Station. “I fired in self-defense,” he pleads. Those were the pieces Algren favored for his collection—ones that were unsettling in their intimacy, leaving the reader with the sense that they were spying on his characters, or eavesdropping on their private vouchsafes.
In its final version, his manuscript contained twenty-four stories, only seven of which had previously been published. They were set in Chicago, the city Algren has always been most closely associated with, but also the Rio Grande Valley, Arkansas, the stretch of highway between Kingdom City, Missouri, and Cairo, Illinois; Wales, France, and Germany. One takes place inside an American bar but its main character lives in the long-past day when he was injured fighting a Falangist in Spain. Some stories are almost entirely dialogue, their worlds conjured with idiom (“[I was] irresisting an officer is all.”). Others are character sketches, concise and sharply rendered. A novella-length epic, “Design for Departure,” chronicles a woman’s whole life—neglected child, factory worker, honeypot for a grift, addict.
It’s an ambitious collection, heterogeneous in its settings, characters, and styles. But it reads as a coherent whole because its stories share that confessional tone and its characters all reside within the confines of the inhospitable land referenced in the title Algren and his publisher eventually agreed on: The Neon Wilderness. For some characters, that land overlays the physical world and they survey it and despair. The protagonist of “Design for Departure,” Mary, sees her life clearly for what it is. Working in a low-rent burlesque where flashing red lights make spilled beer “appear like darkly flowing blood,” she thinks: this is “the true jungle, the neon wilderness.” For others the neon wilderness is a state of being, experienced as an absence—of companionship, of love, of purpose. Arrested and then escorted through a cluster of gawkers, it occurs to the protagonist of “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” that no one had ever, until that point, noticed her and stepped aside to let her pass. “And now just look what for,” she says.
The world those women navigate takes no notice of them, or any of Algren’s other characters. But Algren lavishes them with attention, capturing their distinctive language and its poetic idiom, and giving voice to their rationalizations without judgment—“I’d already had my beating for stealing, so what I had in my hand had been well paid for,” they say. He names but does not condemn their desire, common as it is repellent, to watch someone being beaten and to be reborn cathartically through their pain—to feel that each blow witnessed is redemption for “the blow his own life had been.” And he takes seriously a delinquent’s goal of abiding a motivational poster’s instruction to “learn something new each day.” Speaking to a friend, the wayward child explains that he wouldn’t be in juvenile detention for theft if he’d followed that advice. “I’d be here fer tamperin’ is all. It’d be a missed-meaner is all.”
Because Algren renders his people in such generous detail, the reader takes notice of them too. Their kind are easy to ignore outside the confines of his prose—it takes nothing to turn away when you spot them perched on a barstool at midday, or heating a meal over an open fire in a tent city by the roadside. But Algren brings the reader in so close that it’s impossible to ignore their flawed and unruly humanity, their idiosyncrasies. He even has them confess— the most intimate act—and once they have, the reader can no longer simply turn away.
Algren had been skeptical of America’s involvement in World War II. “[M]y feeling was although the Nazis had to be beaten,” he once said, “. . . this didn’t necessarily mean that we believed in exactly the opposite, that, if we won the war, then everything was going to be as it should be.” And once he returned to Chicago and settled into his goat’s nest above Wabansia, he realized that his doubts had been warranted.
That winter and spring, Algren cast a critical gaze across the postwar landscape. When he looked through his alley-facing windows, peddled through his neighborhood, or observed a police lineup, he encountered a world that had changed little, in material terms, since the end of the Depression and the conclusion of the war. People there still cycled through jails and prisons, lingered beneath the tracks of the El or before bar tops, and slept in cage hotels. If anything, they seemed more heavily burdened, weighed down by the knowledge that they would not benefit from the dividends of peace. But he found no trace of their lives in the newspapers he read, on the city’s new billboards, or on the covers of slick magazines. There, victory and virtue had become synonymous, and consumerism had taken on near-religious significance. As he watched, America was transforming itself into a country of winners, one where only those who could “afford the liquor that lends distinction” and “the beer that gives that special glow of health” were welcome.
Identity, belonging, dislocation—these had always been themes of Algren’s work. But after the war, as the country remade itself through the act of exclusion, these themes began to dominate, his critique sharpening each time he revisited them.
In The Man with the Golden Arm, published in 1949, he would write about people who felt that the city of their childhoods had become “some sort of open-aired jail.” Two years later, in Chicago: City on the Make, he would conjure the sense that life, for some, was nothing but an endless siege—“Every day is D-day under the El.” And in 1953, he would warn that ignoring his people was folly, the condition of their lives being the truest measure of the country’s moral health. “Our myths are so many,” he would write then, “our vision so dim, our self- deception so deep and our smugness so gross that scarcely any way now remains of reporting the American Century except from behind the billboards.”
Those ideas guided the creation of Algren’s greatest works, and it is in The Neon Wilderness that he first gathered them up, wove them together, and adopted a perspective to communicate them. He felt a profound sense of disappointment when he returned from the war, but rather than raging at, or scolding, his readers as he once would have, he confronted them—drawing them in close to his characters, closer, then so close that they could hear sins confessed, foolishness mumbled, losses wept over, and lovers mocked and degraded. In these stories the distance between reader and character collapses, and there is no way for the first to pretend the second does not exist.
This was Algren’s aim—recognition. These are people, he was saying, not victims or perpetrators or causes. They are equal in their humanity to all others, and just as much a part of the American story.
Here they are, look at them, look closer—see them, see yourself.