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The Algren Nickel, Redux

Nelson Algren is my literary hero and role model. In 1998, I wrote the following:

The Algren Nickel
I'm holding an old nickel in my hand. It's very worn, and fairly dirty: small hunks of dark matter are wedged into the letters on the heads side (especially in "God", oddly enough) and along the edges of Monticello on the tails side.

I got the nickel in change somewhere, but didn't really take notice of it until I happened to fish it out of my pocket one morning while pumping gas. In that awkward time when the tank is filling and about the only way to keep busy is to watch the numbers zip past on the pump as the gallons add up. It was the only coin in my pocket, so I looked at it absently, only to be struck by the date on it.

1951. Algren was in his prime then. Chicago: City on the Make was published that year, and he was halfway between his twin triumphs, The Man With the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side. City was published, only to be panned by happy-sunshine, Chamber-of-Commerce Babbits like the Mayor's Office and the Tribune. Some do-gooders managed to get it banned from the Chicago Public Library, somehow claiming that it presented a distorted view of the city. What made the Babbits uncomfortable was that it presented, in gritty detail, the very underside of the city that the Chamber types, in promoting the city's virtues to business owners and upper crust tourists, didn't want to admit existed.

And just yesterday, as I happened to be just finishing another re-reading of Algren's classic 1947 short story collection, The Neon Wilderness, I came across another very worn nickel in a handful of change. The date on this one was 1947. Strange, isn't it, the way this world turns?

May 14, 2003 in Fiction, Memoir | Permalink