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.”