Culture » June 10, 2009
Algren Revisited, One Last Time
A new posthumous collection proves that Nelson Algren’s talent outlasted his desire to use it.
Even in his most casual pieces, Algren was still funny, acerbic and bitterly aware of how the powerful exploit the powerless.
If Nelson Algren had been a racehorse, he would have been the kind he used to bet on: one who fades in the stretch. After winning the National Book Award for The Man with the Golden Arm in 1949, Algren never again produced an important book. Instead, he spent the last 32 years of his life reworking and recycling his early tales of junkies, vagrants, hobos, whores, gamblers and crooks.
Pieces that didn’t make it into Algren’s first magpie book, The Last Carousel, have been reprinted in Entrapment and Other Writings (Seven Stories, May) a posthumous collection that takes its name from the novel he never finished. 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for winning tickets thrown out by mistake, Horvath and Simon have combed through Algren’s old papers, hoping to find unpublished gems.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.
The book’s main event: two long excerpts from Entrapment. Algren intended to top The Man with the Golden Arm by writing a novel to take readers even deeper into the lives of drug addicts, but he never finished. His main character is Beth-Mary, a junkie prostitute who walks the streets for her “Daddy” and lets him take her from the beaches of San Pedro to a cheap hotel in Chicago. Daddy is her connection, both for dope and for love.
“Poor useless boy–I’d rather have his hate than some fat square-fig’s love,” 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. Algren helped Margo kick junk, but she spurned his proposal, marrying a steadily-employed laborer instead.
In another excerpt from Entrapment, Daddy is a racetrack bookie who lost Beth-Mary to another man–as autobiographical a character as Algren ever created. The editors speculate that his disappointment over the real-life love affair–as well as his failure to win Simone de Beauvoir from Jean-Paul Sartre–may have prevented Algren from finishing Entrapment. His writing was still as poetic as during his golden age, and his luckless characters seem more sympathetically drawn than ever, but he no longer had the ambition or the willpower to fight his way through a novel.
By the 1960s, Algren was nickel-and-diming his way through middle age by hacking out articles for barber-shop magazines like Playboy, Dude, Rogue and the Saturday Evening Post. A few of those pieces are included here. As a long-time devotee of the Chicago racetracks, and a friend of ticket-pickers, I loved “Stoopers and Shoeboard Watchers.” The track was Algren territory, as were the strip clubs of Calumet City, Ill., which he investigated for his famous travel piece “G-String Gomorrah.” (Algren made a similar trip to Times Square for “Topless in Gaza.”) Algren also spent time in Saigon during the Vietnam War. A ride-along with American MPs yielded “Nobody Knows Where Charlie’s Gone,” in which Algren concluded that the Vietnamese were “the most unoriginal people on Earth.”
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.
Edward McClelland is the author of Nothin' but Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland.