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Dark Hearts Americana: Nelson Algren

It’s 1933 and it’s Texas. There’s this guy from Chicago. He’s part Jewish and grew up in a Polish neighborhood. He works at a gas station. His name is Nelson Algren, but who cares? Nobody knows who that is yet. He just wrote his first short story and then stole a typewriter from an unlocked college classroom. He thinks he’s going to get away, back to Chicago, by train, but he gets turned around and taken back to that Texas town, where he’s tossed in jail for five months. The authorities want three years. For a typewriter? Probably has more to do with him being from out of state. A northerner. And a Jew. It’s Texas, after all. 

The 1955 adaptation of Algren’s 1949 novel The Man With the Golden Arm isn’t a great film, as adaptations go. It does have a mood and a grit unusual for that era, but it also has cheese and some playfulness that feels ill conceived. It is, though, the best movie Frank Sinatra ever appeared in, Sinatra thought so too. He played Frankie Machine, a World War II vet, an expert card dealer, an ex-junky, a jazz , drummer, an ex-con, and a husband to a wife he crippled in a car accident. She’s not really crippled though, just an act she concocted while he was in jail to keep him from leaving her, keep him under her thumb. It’s quite a story. The novel is complex and layered, set in a poverty stricken neighborhood in Chicago. Algren wrote about these people a lot. He was of them and remained of them, never rising above his raising even when he was fucking French philosopher/writer/feminist Simone de Beauvoir. Like Frankie Machine, Algren could wear many hats as an ex-con, WWII vet, novelist, journalist, and gambler. He won O Henry awards and hung around the fringes of the American Communist party. 

Though he was born in Detroit, lived for a time in Texas and Patterson NJ, and died in Long Island NY, Algren was pure Chicago. The Polish community he grew up in hated him for his novel Never Come Morning, as they widely believed he was a Nazi sympathizer and the novel anti-Polish, but that wasn’t true. He was a life long leftist whose only sympathies lay with the poor and downtrodden he had grown up with. They didn’t get that and never forgave him even after he was dead and gone. And the city boosters and politicians and maybe a few gangsters didn’t appreciate his truth telling in his non-fiction book Chicago, City on the Make, where he spilled the beans on the corruption and back door dealings that plagued his beloved city. 

While he was alive he wrote two short story collections, Neon Wilderness and The Last Carousel, but he only wrote one other successful novel, A Walk on the Wild Side, about a simple Texas boy who travels to New Orleans and gets wrapped up in the world of pimps and whores. It’s an easier read than The Man With the Golden Arm or Never Come Morning, which are written in a deep Chicago accent. The tone of Wild Side was more languid, befitting its Southern locality. The Chicago books feel crowded and breathless (not a criticism), much like living in a big city. You feel how overcrowded the neighborhood is. People are angry, desperate, hungry, tired. Algren pre-dated the Beats, but he had a bop to his prose that Kerouac would later become known for. Wild Side kept the jazz, but brought it South, sweaty, slower, but more raucous, hell, even a little dirtier, certainly less up tight. They made a movie out of it too, but we don’t have to bother getting into that, even if John Fante wrote the screenplay. Lou Reed put the title to far better use with his ode to the real life cast of characters from Andy Warhol’s Factory in the song “Walk on the Wild Side.” 

Candy came from out on the Island
In the back room she was everybody’s Darling
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She said, ‘hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side’

Besides his stint in jail and his long time gambling habit, Algren had been a black market dealer while he was stationed in Europe during WWII. During the Vietnam War, he was broke. It had been a while since A Walk on the Wild Side and he saw opportunity for a journalist in ‘Nam, but not as a journalist, no the aging author, in his 60s was looking to do a little more black market dealing. It isn’t the criminality that I admire it’s the balls on this man. That age or lack of success couldn’t derail his hustle. 

My maternal grandfather was much the same. He spent his final years in a trailer in the woods alone with his little dog growing marijuana, because retirement didn’t pay the bills. After he died, they found bricks of weed hidden in his kitchen cabinets. He came from Kentucky mountain people that made moonshine, feuded with people, and didn’t give a fuck about the law. So I guess that’s one of the reasons I gravitated to Algren’s work in the late 90s. I carried his books around Boston with me when I was broke and cold and lonely as fuck. I’d eat diet pills in the morning so I could get through the day without needing to eat. Drinking coffee on my lunch break, reading Wild Side or Neon Wilderness. I’d already plowed through Bukowski, Kerouac, and Selby down south. Algren fit the bitter cold of New England, even if he was writing about Chicago. I remember treating myself to a birthday breakfast of steak and eggs at the Grecian in Allston on Harvard Ave, while I was reading Never Come Morning. That was, maybe, the loneliest day of my life and I’d go on to spend the evening recklessly, getting blind drunk in the Combat Zone with no recollection of how I made it home, but that cold January morning, Algren was with me and I felt a little less alone.

About Tim Murr

Founded the horror culture blog Stranger With Friction. Author of Motel On Fire and City Long Suffering. Contributor at Biff Bam Pop and formerly Popshifter. Has eight cats.

2 comments

  1. Interesting piece on a giant of noir, and genuine chronicler of the anguish and nothingness stalking the American “dream.” The Beats owed him a LOT (although Burroughs, I think, acknowledged this).

    • Thanks, William! Yea, I after I got into Algren, I could never understand why I didn’t come across his name while I was plowing through the Beats.

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