by Peter Byrne
Algren, Nelson: The Devil's Stocking, Seven Stories Press, NYC, 2006, ISBN-13: 978-1-58322-699-5, ISBN-10: I-58322-699-0, pp. 316.
"Nelson invariably lost at poker."
—Studs Terkel, Afterword, The Neon Wilderness 1985.
"He was enchanted by the hopeless; could not take his eyes off them."
—Kurt Vonnegut, The London Guardian, January 1, 2005.
"We decided the best thing to do with him was to pack him in a shipping crate with a couple of cases of sweet wine and send him to Nelson Algren."
—Richard Brautigan, Trout Fishing in America, 1967.
(Swans - February 11, 2008) Nelson Algren died in 1981 and the centenary of his birth falls in 2009. The republication of The Devil's Stocking, which first appeared in 1983, reveals how his writing life wound down. Is his last novel otherwise worth bothering about? Not fine-tuned or even completely stitched together, it's far from his best work. We could dismiss it as the last drop squeezed from an author by an avid publisher. But that would be a mistake. Algren is a significant writer with deep roots in the fertile years of the 1930s. To ignore his ups and downs would be to surrender once more to our waste bin culture with its memory span measured in months. The Devil's Stocking will moreover put to the test Saul Bellow's barb:
Algren was indeed an original, unfortunately susceptible to ideological infection, a radical bohemian in a quickly dated Chicago style. (It All Adds Up, 1994.)
Nelson Algren wasn't a baby of the Great Depression. His fate was worse. He graduated in journalism from the University of Illinois in 1931, the nadir year of modern America. Chicago, Sandburg's "City of the Big Shoulders," lay flat on its back in a coma. As always, however, the land of new beginnings offered young Nelson its 24/7 possibility. He could hit the road as a bum. His on-the-road journey wasn't made behind the wheel in a 1950s drug haze. (He would come to despise the Beats.) He rode the rails and hitched rides all the way south. There he lived precariously in New Orleans, holed up in a Texas gas station that saw no customers, and finally spent four months in jail for theft.
Algren's first published story in 1933 came out of those rambles. No matter how much he would re-cook, romance, refine, or otherwise elaborate his experience in the south, he could never shake it off. He became the troubadour, not of the temporarily unemployed, but of the eternal loser. He first glimpsed his derelicts, prostitutes, pimps, freaks, and slow-witted con men in the job-scarce years. In his mind they would continue their bottom-of-the-heap existence into the economic perk-up of WWII, through post-war prosperity and the by no means impoverished 1960s.
This should have provided the clue that Algren was no naturalistic writer with his eyes fixed on the quotidian life of the nation. However, his personal political history blurred what he was really all about as a writer. Returning to Chicago he worked with the Communist movement without ever joining the Party, from which he would soon distance himself. He joined the Federal Writers Project and made his share of windy pronouncements about the future of humanity.
No wonder that Saul Bellow, trying to forget his own not dissimilar itinerary, filed Algren away as mired in the past. All the same, the Nobel novelist saw only half the story. The ideological infection did not spread wholesale into Algren's fiction. His stories remain insistently in the lower depths but their politics do not go beyond his musing:
Why lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives? (Fantastic Fiction Web site 2008.)
And we should note the word sometimes here. For his characters rarely reach any greatness whatsoever. The truth is that in "lost people" Algren found his vein and he could work at no other, come utopia, apocalypse, or Hollywood gold. At times he often even falls into a facile and reductive stance in favor of absolute losers. The reader of The Devil's Stocking will find a slew of characters labeled the living dead. They are not the rich and powerful, but the girls' johns, small business people or workers. Algren classifies them as dead in spirit for the simple reason that they don't live on the dramatic edge of crime, destitution, or the sex trade. Nothing could be farther from the traditional vision of socialism.
We could smirk and say that Algren simply had a thing about prostitution. His sex workers are the total negation of the prostitute with the heart of gold. But that doesn't make them much more rewarding as characters, or less sentimentalized. Of course, roundness of character isn't really what he's after. He delights in showing the mutual exploitation of pimps and their apparent prey. It's as if someone had tried to convince him that the world wasn't squalid, and he zealously took up the other side of the argument. The Algren scene par excellence is a drowsy brothel in off-peak afternoon hours. The hookers reminisce. Male hustlers are far between in Algren's he-man world.
Apart from sketching a handful of basic psychological mechanisms, what Algren gives us is a poetic working over of the "lost people." Any number of books tells us infinitely more about the sex industry than Algren's. While dark romance and lowlife-tinted local color underlie his whole production, his novels alternate between what he called a "journalistic" and a "poetic" style: On the one hand, Somebody in Boots (1935), The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), The Devil's Stocking (1983); on the other, Never Come Morning (1942) and A Walk on the Wild Side (1956). An Algren novel isn't closely woven or driven by an overriding impetus. He has more mastery of the short story form where he also manages to find a congenial style, mimetic and colloquial, closer to his needs. It's Sherwood Anderson leavened by Ring Lardner. In the twenty-four stories of The Neon Wilderness (1947), he's at his best and touches on all the themes dear to him.
Along with prostitution, petty crime, gambling, the violence of life at the bottom and the incapacity to cut loose from it, Algren describes addiction. He wrote The Man With The Golden Arm well before junkies became a fashionable subject. While he insisted that he had to be close in time and place to events in order to write about them, his assertion ought to be clarified. In a Paris Review (1955) interview, he blithely confided how little knowledge he had of heroin users, a truth backed up by addicts themselves who read the book. He was obviously not reporting but imagining. Again, as the critic George Bluestone noted in The Western Review of 1957, "to read [Algren] in the naturalist tradition is to misread him." In other words, don't go to him for a picture of New Orleans or Texas, even if without his stay in those places he couldn't have written what he did. Algren needed an atmospheric point of departure. This explains his long residence in a seedy Chicago neighborhood. His short portrait, Chicago, City on the Make (1951) views the city in the main as a lair of losers and their indispensable exploiters. It's a fine piece of Sandburg-like poetic prose, but observed with a very narrow squint.
In 1964, Algren's love affair with Simone de Beauvoir had ended for good, bringing the curtain down on one of the most incongruous couplings of the postwar years. The conjunction of the tough guy from Chicago's Division Street and the feminist from Sartre's Left-Bank stable had been a study in contrasts. It illuminated to the point of caricature the differences between French and American intellectual and artistic life after WWII.
By 1975 Algren hadn't published a novel since 1956 and was well into meltdown. Dependent on magazine work, he was commissioned by Esquire to write about the trial of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. The black boxer had been found guilty of double murder in legal proceedings driven by the testimony of petty criminals under the thumb of the police. Carter narrowly escaped being sentenced to death, and spent nineteen years in prison until freed in 1985. The article was the origin of The Devil's Stocking.
The day after Algren first met Beauvoir in Chicago in 1947, he took her to see a police lineup and the electric chair. Crime, prison, and indeed capital punishment were never far from his mind or fiction. The "lost people" often find their destiny in incarceration. It's part of their DNA, just as inevitable as the brutality of the official response. Early stories like The Captain Has Bad Dreams and A Bottle of Milk For Mother show criminals and law enforcers locked in a skewered game. Neither can change their ways and the "lost" have no more chance of winning than in a ten million to one lottery. Still, they keep buying tickets.
Writing The Devil's Stocking, then, would allow Algren to put his empathy for "the lost people" into a framework of social practice that was the judicial and penal system. Equally he could make his beloved no-hopers into players in a national drama. It would also be an occasion to find himself as a man and serious writer who for years had been pretty well lost to the public and wandering on Grubstreet.
But it didn't work out that way. Expanding his article into a novel meant he would have to compress the interminable legal wrangling and public protest into a cogent drama that revealed character. Instead he created aliases, threw invented characters into the mix, and botched an attempt to include the judicial intricacies. The result had neither the unity of a novel nor the reliable reporting of a good documentary. It was neither moving fiction nor scrupulous fact.
Friendly critics insist that had Algren not died suddenly he would have straightened the project out. But it's doubtful that he could have done more than smooth some rough edges. The flaws run through the book's foundation. The arid years had destroyed his faith in his poetry, while failing to convince him that his reporting could be literature. The familiar brothel characters appear in a kind of parallel life that's irrelevant to the condemned boxer's struggle for freedom. We want to beg the author to get the lounging pimps out of the way of the story.
Chapter Five, entitled Athens, demonstrates all the strength and weakness of the book. It recounts a prison revolt and hostage taking. Algren shows the inhumanity of the penal system, the cruelty and ignorance of the guards, the stern indifference of officialdom and its pandering to the frightened citizenry. At the same time he doesn't gloss over the ruinous anarchy of the prisoners. Their attempt at self-regulation in the person of Black Muslims and reasonable whites is undermined by the viciously self-seeking among them. And Algren can once again, as he had never failed to do for a half century, strike a blow at racism.
But the reader leaves Chapter Five, the prison and Athens, feeling he hasn't been told the story of the rebellion. Just as Algren got bogged down in various court decisions, he hasn't been able to make narrative sense of the prisoners' uprising. This is a pity because the closed world of the Athens' jail contained all the elements needed to tell the tale of America in the 1970s. (Algren made some fictional use of the actual 1971 prison riot in the Correctional Facility at Attica, N.Y.)
In the last analysis, Algren's fiction never forgets his early fascination with belly-up outsiders. His characters are not so much condemned to exclusion as without the faintest idea of coming inside. They accept their outlaw status as a birthright. The author is moved by the young criminal who says, "I knew I'd never get to be twenty-one anyhow." (A Bottle of Milk for Mother.) But he's not concerned to show why the youth had such a thought. Algren's chronic drunks are not escaping economic plight; they are simply very thirsty. He often spoke in admiration of Dostoevsky. But the Russian's respect for the most contemptible wretch is based on a Christian concept of sin, guilt, and redemption. Algren's attachment to the "loser" seems based only on the fact that he isn't a winner.
Thus Bellow's stricture applies to Algren if we consider his brand of bohemian-tinged miserablism to be outdated and narrow. But it doesn't apply because of any political ideology that Algren's fiction might have embodied. Algren, for his part, was just as purblind about Bellow's work:
My criticism of guys like Bellow is that they lack greatness really, no matter how skilled, because they never go all out.... Saul just keeps doing Herzog. (242-5, H.E.F. Donohue, Conversations with Nelson Algren 1964.)
To go "all out" meant identifying with the "lost people." Herzog, though decidedly eccentric and possibly demented, had been a college professor with, for a while, a suburban house and family. To Algren's mind that disqualified him from being "lost." Taking the salaried classes seriously implied, for Algren, ruling out "greatness." Writing about such people was "repetitive," while writing about a plethora of foxy hookers wasn't. So it was that the two best Chicago writers of the second half of the 20th century misconstrued each other in belligerent bad faith.
Algren held that "Literature is made upon any occasion that a challenge is made to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with humanity." (Seven Stories Press Website) Nothing could be more misleading than this recipe that can just as well produce unreadable lucubration. Nonetheless, Algren's best writing is indeed literature, and he refused ever to take the side of the powerful whatever their rationalizations.
Nelson Algren's last novel shows him caught in the trap of his own fixations. He failed to make the "lost people" a functional part of a story that strove to take on society as a whole. Over the years he often repeated that a woman once called him a devil's stocking. The obscure saying meant he was knitted backwards. Instead of putting Algren in a critic's pigeonhole, why not let the unknown woman's definition stand?
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