A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren

Nelson Algren grew up in working-class neighborhoods in Chicago, won the very first National Book Award for fiction for his 1949 novel The Man with the Golden Arm, and was Simone de Beauvoir’s lover. Among other things, he also wrote a long essay with the cool title Chicago: City on the Make. It upset the city’s elite. 

I started reading The Man with the Golden Arm recently, but found the Chicago slang difficult to follow, so I moved on to his 1956 novel A Walk on the Wild Side. It was hard to follow at times too, but I’m glad I made the effort. 

It’s the story of Dove Linkhorn, an uneducated, poor young man from Texas who hops a freight train at the beginning of the Depression and ends up in New Orleans. There he scrambles for a living, gets drunk a lot, commits various crimes, and mostly associates with prostitutes, pimps, beggars and thieves. Dove comes across as a simpleton a lot of the time, and his vagueness often makes him invisible as a character. It also takes a while to understand what’s happening in some scenes, but Dove’s experiences and the people he bumps into on the very seedy side of New Orleans are almost always interesting. And Algren’s gritty, sometimes political, often poetical prose is even better (“Self-reliance for the penniless and government aid to those who already had more than they could use was the plan”).

If there’s a theme to the novel, it’s that the down and out people are often a lot better than the other ones.

The city fathers, Do-Right Daddies and all of that, Shriners, Kiwanians, Legionaires, Knights of this and Knights of that, would admit with a laugh that New Orleans was hell. But that hell itself had been built spang in the center of town…

There were stage shows and peep shows, geeks and freaks all down old Perdido Street. But it wasn’t geeks who ran that street. It wasn’t panders who owned the shows. There were chippified blondes and elderly rounders, bummies and rummies and amateur martyrs. There were creepers and kleptoes and zanies and dipsoes. It was night bright as day, it was day dark as night, but stuffed shirts and do-righties owned those shows.

For a Do-Right Daddy is right fond of money and still he don’t hate fun. He charged the girls double for joint-togs and drinks, rent, fines, towel service and such. But before any night’s ball was done, he joined in the fun. 

Later he had to be purged of guilt so he could sleep with his wife again. That where the pulpit came in….

There was a 1962 movie based on the book but, aside from the New Orleans setting and a few characters, I doubt they were able to cram much of the story – a lot of it not very nice – into a Hollywood movie. Years later, Lou Reed was approached to turn A Walk on the Wild Side into a musical. He only kept the title.

Here’s one more quote, part of which is pretty famous. An “old-timer” named Cross-Country Kline, “the only true criminal in the whole tankful of fools, the only one who had soldiered honestly against law and order”, is giving advice to Dove Linkhorn:

“Blow wise to this, buddy, blow wise to this: Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own. Never let nobody talk you into shaking another man’s jolt. And never you cop another man’s plea. I’ve tried ’em all and I know. They don’t work.

Life is hard by the yard, son. But you don’t have to do it by the yard. By the inch it’s a cinch. And money can’t buy everything. For example: poverty.”

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

This is the English novel that begins: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. It tells the story of a boy named Leo who spends the summer of 1900 at the home of a wealthy friend. Without understanding the significance of his role, Leo begins delivering messages between his friend’s unmarried sister and a local farmer. He is told that the messages are secret and pertain to “business”, but of course there’s more to it than that.

The novel, published in 1953, was the basis for an excellent movie of the same name that starred Julie Christie and Alan Bates. It’s beautifully written, if a little verbose at times. The only odd thing about it is that it’s in the form of a memoir, as if the grownup Leo is describing events of 50 years ago. Since no normal person could possibly remember what happened that long ago in such detail, we have to assume that the narrator is unreliable or it’s a case of extreme artistic license.

White Noise by Don DeLillo

DeLillo’s novel White Noise won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1985. I read it back then and enjoyed it, but also found it somewhat mysterious. I guess I didn’t know what he was trying to say. Having read it again, and enjoyed it even more, I’d now say he’s commenting on the strangeness and artificiality of modern America lives.

It’s the story of a Professor of Hitler Studies at a small liberal arts college, and the professor’s wife and children, and how they all cope or fail to cope with their confusion and fear. The centerpiece of the novel is an “airborne toxic event” that the family has to escape. But the most important aspect of the story isn’t the plot, or even the characters, but DeLillo’s wonderful language. Real people don’t speak like DeLillo’s characters, but it’s still great to see what they have to say. 

The Black Ice by Michael Connelly

This is the second book in Michael Connelly’s series of novels about semi-disgraced Los Angeles Police Department Detective Harry Bosch. It wasn’t bad. Bosch becomes involved in the apparent suicide of a fellow officer. He isn’t supposed to work on the case but one thing (or one murder) leads to another. Besides, somebody has to figure everything out. The ice referred to in the title is a heavy-duty drug that’s being imported from Mexico. Being the kind of cop he is, Bosch ignores his bosses and takes his investigation south of the border. He even ends up in a tunnel again, as you would expect in another story about an ex-Viet Nam tunnel rat.

Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal’s novel was quite scandalous when it was published in 1968. It’s the story of a man (Myron) who became a woman (Myra). She’s working in Hollywood now and has dedicated herself to something like reformulating the American concept of masculinity. She thinks she’ll accomplish this by having her way with an attractive young man who wants to be a movie star. Along the way, she falls in love with the young man’s girlfriend and schemes to take control of movie cowboy Buck Loner’s Acting Academy for Aspiring Young Actors and Actresses. As one would expect, her mission isn’t a complete success. 

It’s a satirical novel, so there are some larger-than-life characters, including Myra. She has an extraordinarily high opinion of herself, but eventually concludes that she “certainly went through a pretentious phase”. It’s worth reading, partly because Vidal was a talented writer with a gift for wry commentary. But it’s not terribly funny and nowhere near as shocking as it was in 1968.  

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

Perhaps Sherlock Holmes could explain why this is the first of Dr. Watson’s writings I’ve ever read. This is the novel that introduces Holmes and Watson. The doctor wants to share a flat. The detective solves two murders. But I sure didn’t expect several chapters about Mormons in America’s Wild West. Next up: The Sign of (the) Four.