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Nelson Algren, The Last Carousel

Given my love of Nelson Algren's writing, I can't quite explain why I didn't come around sooner to The Last Carousel, his late collection of short stories and memoirs which was the last book published during his lifetime. Probably this was due to my general impression that the quality of his writing toward the end of his career had greatly diminished along with its considerably reduced quantity. Algren published extensively during the Forties and Fifties, with the stellar novels The Man With the Golden Arm, Never Come Morning and Walk on the Wild Side, the story collection The Neon Wilderness and the book-length essay Chicago: City on the Make. But by the late Fifties his output had slackened, for which numerous reasons have been suggested, none of which have proven completely satisfactory. Through the Sixties and early Seventies he was mostly writing magazine articles and some short stories, along with a never-completed novel, Entrapment, which was apparently the artistic millstone of his last few decades before his death in 1981.

My ignorance of The Last Carousel wasn't any lack of availability, as the book has been in print with Seven Stories Press since 1997, and an earlier edition has been on the shelf at my public library for the entire 10 years I've been a patron there. (I did check it out once but only read his hilarious piece on his Hollywood screenwriting fiasco and Otto Preminger before setting it aside and turning my focus elsewhere.) As I mentioned, my impression was that his writing had declined in his last decades, and I suppose I didn't want to sully my admiration for him by reading his less accomplished work. And now I've come to regret that presumption, because now I've finally read the book, devouring it over a few pleasant weeks and enjoying it a great deal.

To my great surprise, Algren's gift for writing - especially for fiction - was nearly as strong later on as it was during his 1940s prime. His terrific long story, "Bullring of the Summer Night", about the jockeys, owners and hangers-on at a third-rate Arkansas horsetrack, suggests that not only was Algren not wasting away his later years at the track, but that his powers of observation and description had barely diminished at all. In fact, he might have had a great horseracing novel in him had he opted to expend the effort. (In the interview collection Conversations With Nelson Algren, he suggests that after the Fifties he lost the energy and devotion for writing novels, which he figured wouldn't be appreciated anyway. He also seemed to be thoroughly enjoying his life away from writing, and dreaded being chained to a desk writing another "big book.") "Moon of the Afry Darfy" and "Watch Out for Daddy" are fine extensions of "Bullring", whose disgraced jockey Hollis Floweree is memorably depicted in "Arfy Darfy" as he drifts to Chicago and tries to pick up the pieces of his shattered life, while "Daddy" concerns two doomed addicts - a hooker and her pimp - who work out of the seedy bar where Hollis drinks.

As good as the fiction is here, though, my favorite piece in the collection is "Everything Inside Is a Penny" which despite its fictional touches appears to actually be a memoir from Algren's childhood. His warm rememberance of his South Side days - his mechanical genius father, his hectoring mother, the Catholic girl from the apartment upstairs who is young Nelson's first love, the trips to the West Side to visit his grandfather - are bracketed in preface and conclusion with a haunting description of an abandoned El station (apparently the station on the Lake Street line he passed through when visiting his grandfather) and the snowdrifts, lonely lights and memories which still linger there. The El station passages remind me quite a bit of the portions of The Man With the Golden Arm during which the lonely and forlorn Zosh whiles away her empty hours gazing out of her flophouse window at the windswept tracks outside; both invoke sadness, loss and what will never come again.

Though I'd recommend that newcomers to Algren first check out the early novels and especially Chicago: City on the Make, more seasoned Algren readers would be well-advised to check out The Last Carousel, which has plenty of great writing in its own right and is a surprisingly strong addition to his body of work. 

January 19, 2010 in Books | Permalink