I go way back with Nelson Algren. Reading his great second novel Never Come Morning in high school in the 80s introduced me to Chicago, the city which I have called home for most of my adult life. He is a writer who is loved fervently by a small cadre of rabid acolytes and largely ignored by the larger culture. The reasons for his abandonment are many. Periodically though, he is rediscovered. The last few years have been such a time.
Two very different documentaries, Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, The Road is All and Algren: The Movie have appeared recently to reintroduce two very different versions of the man to the public and Colin Asher, who wrote an in depth article on Algren for The Believer was announced to be working on a new biography. There is a Nelson Algren Committee which marks his birthday every year with readings, film screenings, and parties. I’ve done my part by memorializing the man in print, painting his image on coffee bags, greeting cards, and logos for since-cancelled radio shows, and even running a tribute Twitter account for a time. Now there is Mary Wisniewski’s Algren: A Life.
I happened on this book a few months ago at a Logan Square bookshop. I had heard no news of its publication though I have made it a practice to comb the internet for Algren news over the last few years. That’s not necessarily a knock on Wisniewski or Chicago Review Press (which put out the book.) The entire publishing industry has been in a chaotic free fall of late, so notice about a new biography of a major mid-20th Century American writer can easily fall through the cracks. Algren himself, ever bitter about being ignored and not given his due, might have been amused but not surprised.
Wisniewski does a good job of tracing Algren’s childhood as the son of a hard-working but short-tempered father and a domineering, sharp-tongued mother. Helping out at his father’s unprofitable tire-repair shop gave Algren an early introduction to class differences and the limitations of capitalism in America. His tramping throughout the country during the Great Depression would crystallize his stance as a champion of the disadvantaged and of all those for whom the American Dream had turned out to be a nightmare.
Wisniewski is less successful when summarizing the novels which made Algren’s name. As she herself notes repeatedly, Algren had a lot of trouble with plot in his fiction. What he excelled at was nailing bits of speech and painting precise character sketches; story arcs and such were always a chore and imposition to him. So Wisniewski’s short retellings of these books do very little to give an unfamiliar reader much sense of what makes them so compelling.
Wisniewski’s odd habit of referring to a man she didn’t know personally as Nelson throughout the book may have been meant to convey an informal intimacy, but instead feels like a familiarity which is unearned. She is wise to have interviewed the few of Algren’s friends who are still living for their firsthand recollections and to have turned to scholars like Bill Savage for his expertise on Algren’s writing. It is Savage who provides one of the most insightful moments in the book while describing the way Algren’s work was misconstrued due to lurid paperback covers, “It transforms the novel, which is anti-plot on every level, into a popular potboiler drama,” Savage said, “It fills me with rage.”
That rage is palpable to anyone who falls under Algren’s spell. Just as Algren railed against anything he perceived as injustice, those who keep his work alive take every opportunity to raise their voices to champion his cause. Algren’s focus on society’s losers makes his enshrinement in America’s literary canon a long shot. This country’s all about winning or at least pretending to have won, no matter the mountain of evidence to the contrary. He is also wildly inconsistent; a poetic wonder one moment, a tin-eared bore the next. Still, he deserves to be read at least by those interested in urban life in mid-20th Century America.
Midway through Wisniewski’s book I realized that I was not her ideal reader. I have three decades’ worth of my own ideas and feelings about Nelson Algren. I’ve read nearly everything the man published, some books multiple times, and I’ve formed a personal relationship with him which anyone else’s take can’t help but ruffle. I kept asking myself while reading what someone who knew nothing of Algren would take away from this biography and I concluded that such a reader would at the very least be tempted to crack open The Man With the Golden Arm, Nonconformity, or Chicago: City on the Make to judge the man’s worth for themselves. If it can spur a bit of attention and enthusiasm Algren’s way then it will have been an unambiguous success.
Algren: A Life
by Mary Wisniewski
Chicago Review Press; 384 p.