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Sunday Night Literary Fights



So I'm sitting in the bar on Sunday night, enjoying a sweating bottle of Pabst in the middle of a holiday weekend, just minding my own business. Suddenly a ragged voice cuts through the din, its query clearly directed at me.
    "Who's the greatest American writer of the twentieth century?" the voice demanded.
    "Nelson Algren," I replied, almost automatically.
    "Algren? Bah! He couldn't carry Hemingway's jockstrap."
    That's just the way Hemingway's followers are in this town, always picking fights in bars, as if they're upholding Papa's honor or something. Especially at Garnsey III. The Fitzgerald and Steinbeck fans seem to favor the downtown Joliet bars, where the discussions observe a considerable degree of decorum. But out here in the neighborhood bars matters aren't nearly as polite. I was just glad I wasn't at the Moran AC, where all-out brawls would regularly break out over the subject of Raymond Chandler.
    Fortunately I was able to immediately dismiss the mental image of Hemingway in a jockstrap, and focused on the matter immediately at hand, namely the menacing drunk who dared impugn Algren's reputation.
    "Sure, Hemingway wrote a few good stories," I said calmly, "but Algren wrote an entire book of great ones--ever read The Neon Wilderness? Great stuff, even an illiterate like you might enjoy them."
    He stepped out of the shadows, clenching a beer bottle by its neck in his fat fist. He was a burly man, bearded, salt-and-pepper hair. Looked a bit like Hemingway himself, probably intentionally so. He was obviously a man of action, not prone to deep reflection, and it was clear he didn't want to settle the argument with words. He smashed the base of the bottle against a bar stool, shattering the glass into a weapon whose jagged teeth gleamed ominously in the neon light.
    "Son Also Rises. Old Man and the Sea," he raged.
    "Decent, but I'll take The Man With the Golden Arm over both of them. Probably Never Come Morning, too. By the way, don't you think it's kind of gutless for a Hemingway fan to use something as crude as a broken beer bottle?"
    He stopped momentarily in his tracks, peering quizically at me.
    "I doubt if your hero ever used anything but his bare fists. A broken bottle seems kind of prissy."
    Enraged, he flew at me, slashing the bottle at my head. I ducked and stepped clear.
    "Besides, before you're so quick to cut down Algren, do you know how much Hemingway admired his writing? 'Boy you are good,' Hemingway said about Algren once, and called him the second-greatest living writer."
    The drunk lunged again, but he was at least a half-dozen drinks ahead of me, and his coordination wasn't at all sharp. I easily dodged him again.
    "Sure, Hemingway considered himself to be the greatest living writer, but you can't just ignore the fact that he thought of Algren so highly," I added.
    I baited him like this for a while, exchanging rational arguments for his poorly-aimed swipes at my throat. Looking back, I could have easily escaped this encounter with my dignity and physical well-being intact, but unfortunately I got a bit carried away in eloquence and, distracted by trying to quote a convincing passage from Chicago: City on the Make, I must have stood still just long enought for him to get a bead on me.
    He lunged again, slicing open my chin with the bottle. At that moment I was jarred back to my senses, and knowing that even Algren enjoyed a bare-knuckled brawl every now and then and would undoubtedly have condoned a physical response from me, I coiled up and went after him.
    Long and short of it is, the melee went on for quite some time, the police were called in but I finally talked my way out of the jam, emerging with Algren's honor remaining intact, at the cost of only seven stitches and a tetanus shot for myself. Which sounds bad until you consider that the other guy is still in the hospital.
    By the way, you might have heard the rumors that my injury didn't happen in a bar, but in a coffeehouse, and it didn't result from a literary brawl, but from fainting, falling and cutting myself open on a display shelf. Vicious lies, all of them, probably started by the other guy himself, that coward, mumbling through his head bandages. Ask me sometime, and I'll show you the police report to prove it to you.

May 30, 2006 in Fiction, Joliet, Personal | Permalink

Comments

Good story, but I heard differently! ;-) (via your wife)

Posted by: Wanda at May 30, 2006 1:22:28 PM

hmmmm... does your wife know you call her.. 'the other guy'.. you uh better get the pillows and sheets out now. cause you are sleeping on the couch hehehhehe
Great story!

Posted by: Denise at May 30, 2006 1:27:53 PM

I don't care what the 'real' story was, this one was comedy gold.

Posted by: Al at May 30, 2006 3:06:38 PM

"...even *an* illiterate..." Oh yeah, I noticed. And if you had said stuff like that about Sir Hemingway to me, I'd have taken a bottle to you too. It might have been one made of felt and embroidered with pretty flowers, but that's completely not the point.

My god, whoever knew making a pincushion would lead me to such a conversation. And I am sure Ernest looked just fine in a jock strap.

Posted by: Megan at May 30, 2006 4:40:26 PM

Hrm. William Faulkner. I mean The Sound and the Fury? Absalom, Absalom... As I Lay Dying.... Masterpieces all. We won't discuss the Marble Fawn though. Sad that he always thought of himself as a failed poet.

Posted by: Liz at May 31, 2006 7:54:12 AM

*An* illiterate, indeed. Megan, thanks for pointing out the error (which is now corrected) and special thanks for reviving the Hemingway-in-jockstrap mental image. I probably won't sleep well for the next few days.

Posted by: Pete at May 31, 2006 9:02:41 AM

Great story! Really good. Of course, after beginning to read the story, I got a little sidetracked with the thought; "Pabst"? Why? Since the 1950's, other beers have come to market that taste actually good. And if you'd have been drinking one of these microbrews, you might not have offended the Hemingway fan. I mean, who'd take anyone who liked "The Old Man and the Sea" seriously anyway? Gore Videl maybe. Even adolescent author Howard Pease. Louis Lamour, yes. Grisham? Very readable. But Hemingway? I've read close to 5,000 books, but could never get could get through one of his "masterpieces". I usually put it down with the thought, "Drivel". Never read Algren, but anyone who inspired such a great song must be good!
And loved your story!

Posted by: MichaelP at May 31, 2006 6:55:11 PM