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A Is For Algren

Inspired by Stuck In a Book, I am starting this occasional new series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The first, appropriately, is Nelson Algren, my very favorite.

How many books do I have by Algren?
Ten: Somebody in Boots, Never Come Morning, The Neon Wilderness, The Man With the Golden Arm, Chicago: City on the Make, A Walk On the Wild Side (actually in a three-book Algren volume put out by the Quality Paperback Book Club in the 1990s), Who Lost an American?, Conversations With Nelson Algren, The Last Carousel, and Nonconformity. Plus Bettina Drew's biography, Nelson Algren: A Life On the Wild Side (I haven't read either of the biographies by Mary Wisniewski or Colin Asher.)

How many of these have I read?
All of them. The only Algren books I haven't read are Notes From a Sea Diary, The Devil's Stocking, and Entrapment (plus a few other minor posthumous volumes). I don't really regret any of my omissions. I've browsed The Devil's Stocking (his posthumously-published novelization of the Hurricane Carter case) but the prose didn't grab me at all, and I've read the title story of Entrapment without being overwhelmed enough to buy the book during the few times I've seen it in stores.

How did I start reading Algren?
I first heard about Algren from a newspaper column by Mike Royko (another of my favorites - if this series survives long enough for me to reach the letter R, he will definitely be profiled here), who exuberantly praised The Neon Wilderness. I found a first edition of The Man With the Golden Arm a few years later for the ridiculous price of $7.50 (yes, this was way back in the ancient 1980s, but even then it was a great price), read it, and was hooked. I've read Golden Arm four or five times, and several of the others multiple times. Besides the brilliance of his early books, I was also drawn in by his reputation as a great Chicago writer; I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and lived in the city for five or six years, and both of my parents grew up in the city, so Chicago has endlessly fascinated me.

General impressions...
I think Algren could have been one of the greatest writers America has ever produced, but to me he instead holds the dubious distinction of America's most squandered literary talent. The second through fifth books noted above are nothing short of brilliant: gritty yet beautiful, angry yet thoughtful, brutal yet funny; he was the first recipient of the National Book Award, in 1950, for Golden Arm. But after City On the Make, for a variety of artistic and personal reasons, his career went sharply downhill for the last thirty years of his life. His first book during the downhill, A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), is actually one of his better-known books (or at least the title is well known, thanks to Lou Reed, one of his admirers) but made little impression on me. (And I was even less impressed years later, when I read somewhere that Wild Side was basically a rewrite of his first book, Somebody In Boots - which was pretty bad - that was instigated by his publisher, looking for a big payday.) The Last Carousel had some good moments, including a couple of horseracing short stories which suggest that Algren still had a good horseracing novel in him during the late 1950s and early 1960s had he bothered to put in the work.

If you've never read Algren, then you should start with...
The Man With the Golden Arm. Followed by City On the Make, The Neon Wilderness and Never Come Morning.

If I had to get rid of one Algren book, it would be...
The three-book QPB volume, since I already own Golden Arm and The Neon Wilderness (the other books collected there), and won't ever read Wild Side again.

July 2, 2020 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink

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