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The Gritty Life - and Fiction - of Nelson Algren Not Big on Niceties

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Algren: A Life
By Mark Wisniewski
384 pp.
Chicago Review Press

Nelson Algren really wanted to be a professional writer. Really. Sure, he had graduated from the University of Illinois with a B.S. in journalism and a card he could show to potential employers saying that he was “a qualified editorial writer” and “entitled to work as a sports reporter, editor, columnist, and foreign correspondent.”

But that was during the Depression, and jobs of any kind were hard to come by. So after spending some years hoboing around the country working as a door-to-door salesman, fruit picker and carnival worker, he found himself in Alpine, Texas, near the Sul Ross State Teachers College in 1934.

Burning to write his first novel – but lacking a typewriter to compose it on – he arranged with the school to borrow one in an unoccupied classroom. And then stole it. And then spent a month in jail for the crime, meeting even more bizarre characters to add to his sizable Mental Rolodex that would fuel his fiction populated with lowlifes, criminals, rapists, hookers and drug addicts.

“Unfortunately, there were no jobs in journalism,” Algren later said. “And I never went voluntarily into the world of pimps and thieves and wandering people – I was pushed into it.”

He even took a job in Chicago on the “Syph Patrol” – seeking out people who were reported to the Board of Health as possibly having the disease, and encouraging them to come in for testing. It brought him to bars, brothels and seedy shooting galleries that he would just tuck away in his head for future reference.

In this book – the first bio of Algren (1909-1981) in a quarter century — Chicago Tribune journalist Wisniewski paints a compelling portrait of a talented but troubled writer who would burn brightly, quickly, then slowly fade from a career and spotlight he seemed indifferent to in the first place.

The Great Typewriter Theft is just but one of many stranger-than-fiction tales told about the life of Algren in this biography just as gritty as any of his fiction, which included novels and short story collections like Never Come Morning, The Neon Wilderness, and A Walk on the Wild Side (a favorite of a young musician named Lou Reed).

His most famous work was 1949’s The Man With the Golden Arm, about ex-GI, card dealer, aspiring jazz drummer and heroin addict Frankie Machine and his milieu of depraved people and places. It was made into a highly popular 1955 film starring Frank Sinatra, and while certainly edgy for its time, it still diluted many of the book's seamier and more shocking aspects.

But perhaps the biography's greatest sections examine the most impactful romantic relationship (and there were many) of Algren’s life, played out over many years and thousands of miles in distance.

“The romance of Nelson Algren and the French writer, philosopher, and feminist Simone de Beauvoir was the most ridiculous, exotic, corny, impossible, unreasonable, and amazing thing to come into both their lives,” Wisniewski writes. And how.

Seemingly complete opposites, the couple carried on a (non-exclusive) affair that was the epitome of the long distance romance.

However, Beauvoir’s unbreakable bond with French existentialist leader Jean Paul Satre – who held some sort of command over her that she willingly accepted – precluded Algren from ever being the No. 1 man in her life. Not that she would have stood long for his sometimes outlandishly sexist behavior anyway.

The Man with the Golden Arm would prove to be Algren’s career apex, to which he would never return. Partially a reaction to his sometimes hard-to-handle subject matter, and partially owing to his own indifference, depression and alcoholism, Algren spent his last two decades dabbling variously in short stories, opinion pieces, travelogues, journalism and political commentary (his early flirtation with Communism and Progressive causes would bring him under the surveillance of the FBI).

By the time of his death, he had moved from his and his work’s spiritual home in Chicago to the far more bucolic New York coast, though he was broke and adrift and none of his book works were in print. He was seen as a odd, old author who famously detested writing schools (a young John Irving was his student at the Iowa Writers Workshop), feeling strongly that fiction writing could not be taught, but had to be lived.

The years since then have been kinder to Algren’s work. The city of Chicago has belatedly embraced him, and fans/champions have ranged from writers Kurt Vonnegut and Studs Terkel to maverick film directors John Sayles and Philip Kaufman to Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan. Algren: A Life is a powerful piece of biography, and far, far from the prettiest or nicest telling of an author’s life and work. Which would probably suit its subject just fine.

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