Tag Archives: 1947 Club

‘The Neon Wilderness’ (Part 2) by Nelson Algren

1947-club-pinkFollowing on from my earlier post on two of the stories from The Neon Wilderness I thought I’d comment on some of the others. The opening story, the captain has bad dreams, is an amusing piece; it’s not really a story as such, rather it consists of a parade of petty criminals coming before the police captain and verbally sparring with him. They have to stand under a bright light and make a sort of confessional before the cynical captain. The criminals’ explanations are generally amusing, and the captain’s replies just as funny.

    “She fell down. I went to help her up, so her pocketbook opened up. I was helpin’ her to pick up the t’ings.”
    “You’re always helpin’ women pick up their things, somehow. We got six warrants for you from New York for helpin’ out there.”

    “You ever been arrested before?”
    “No sir. This is my first time.”
    “The first time this week, you mean.”
    “Oh, I been arrested in Michigan. I thought you meant in Illinois. I never been arrested in Illinois. I never did no wrong in Illinois.”
    “What good does that do you?”
    “It don’t. It’s just that I love my state so much I go to Michigan to steal,” he explained with an expression almost beatific.

And they keep on coming, one after another…and they haunt the captain in his sleep as well as when he’s awake.

A similar story is a bottle of milk for mother, but in this story it’s just Bruno Lefty Bicek being interrogated by the police. He’s accused of ‘jackrollin’ a drunk and killing him. Bicek denies this and innocently says he was just getting a bottle of milk for his mother when the police arrested him. But the police put pressure on Bicek to confess; he maintains that he hadn’t intended to murder the drunk but just to shoot him in the foot to get him off of him as they tussled. Bicek has to accept that he’s going to prison for manslaughter at least and the story ends with him in a prison cell. Although algren_neon-wilderness_fcx-700pxthe dialogue is as snappy as the captain has bad dreams this story has little humour—it’s a more serious piece. In the story depend on aunt elly Algren shifts his attention to a female character. It concerns Wilma who gets arrested for prostitution and after paying a fine is re-arrested and faces three years in prison, or some sort of correctional facility—Algren is often unclear about details. She manages to get out before her time is up by agreeing to pay her ‘Aunt Elly’ (actually a corrupt prison guard) a fixed sum each month. On the outside she shacks up with, and marries, a ‘flat-faced clown’ called Baby Needles. Things look good for a while but Wilma doesn’t tell her husband about the payments to Elly and then things start to go wrong and Elly catches up with Wilma. Although the story is downbeat it’s not depressing, it’s just that there’s an inevitability about their lives, they only have momentary release from the oppression of poverty and the law; they have to break the law to survive—until they’re caught.

Another stand-out story includes the face on the barroom floor, which is basically a story of a barroom brawl between the ‘mild-mannered youth’ Fancy and Railroad Shorty who got his legs chopped off by a train. Goaded on by the other drinkers the fight ends with Shorty pounding Fancy’s face.

For the face on the floor was no longer a face. It was a paste of cartilage and blood through which a single sinister eye peered blindly. The broken mouth blew minute bubbles of froth and blood.

In design for departure we are introduced to a couple of drunks, Sharkey and his latest woman called ‘the Widow’. But the focus of the story turns to Sharkey’s daughter Mary whose aim in life is to find a quiet room of her own with no doors where she can escape from the world. Although her father and the Widow are not abusive they are uninterested in Mary and don’t notice when she stops going to school and probably don’t notice when she leaves home for a dingy roominghouse and a job wrapping bacon.

Thus she lived in a twilit land between sleep and waking. And in sleep saw the terrible maze of the city’s million streets. Saw a million friendless faces, all going one way down a single avenue, each alone. Saw herself among them, touching strangers’ faces curiously, touching many hands; yet always untouched by any man’s hand and befriended by no woman.

As with Wilma in depend on aunt elly Mary encounters a man (Christy) who is good to her but who runs a protection racket and introduces her to drugs. But it’s when Christy is arrested and goes to prison that Mary’s life descends into a dreamlike insanity where she believes that she’s the Virgin Mary and Christy is Jesus Christ. It sounds bleak but there is some excellent writing here; at times Algren reminds me of Zola, Dickens or Dostoyevsky, and at other times he’s more like Kerouac, Céline or Bukowski. Here’s a great example from design for departure which evokes the lives of the inhabitants of the roominghouse:

Along the pavement-colored hall doors stood half open on either side, all the way down; each one was numbered in bright bald tin, each one stood just so much ajar in the gas-lit corridor. Just enough to reveal half-dressed men and women waiting for the rain or about to make love or already through loving and about to get drunk; or already half drunk and beginning to argue about how soon it was going to rain or whose turn it was to run down for whisky or whether it was time to make love again or forget it for once and just wait for rain.

What I find significant about Algren’s characters is that there are very few that you would call ‘bad’, let alone ‘evil’; they quite often do ‘bad’ things, usually as a consequence of a life of poverty. Algren doesn’t offer that as an excuse but instead forces us to try to understand the lives of these inhabitants of the urban underworld.

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‘The Neon Wilderness’ (Part 1) by Nelson Algren

1947-club-pinkAs I was trying to decide what to read for the ‘1947 Club’ two books jumped out at me; both were books I’d read before and which I’d been meaning to re-read for quite a while. As I’ll probably only have time to read one for this group I’ll have to ditch the other one, which was going to be Jean Genet’s Querelle of Brest, and instead just concentrate on The Neon Wilderness which is a collection of stories by Nelson Algren (1909-1981). Nelson Algren is a favourite author of mine but he seems to be largely forgotten or ignored these days. He is most famous for the books The Man With the Golden Arm (1949) which is about the morphine addict Frankie Machine (played by Frank Sinatra in the film version) and A Walk on the Wild Side (1956) which, like most of his books, is about the urban lowlife such as prostitutes, drunks, addicts etc. n.b. despite the Lou Reed song it has nothing to do with transvestites or transexuals. I think of Nelson Algren as a ‘pre-Beat’, one of those writers whose work must have influenced the Beats to some extent, even though he doesn’t get mentioned much by them. This post is going to concentrate on just two of the stories as they’re two of my favourites (of any author) and I’ll hope to post on some of the others during the rest of the week. The two stories are how the devil came down division street and stickman’s laughter. BTW In my edition all the titles are lowercase; I’m not sure if that was the case in the original edition but it seems to suit Algren’s style, and I like it, so I’ll stick to that in my posts.

I’ll start with the opening paragraphs of how the devil came down division street:

Last Saturday evening there was a great argument in the Polonia Bar. All the biggest drunks on Division were there, trying to decide who the biggest drunk of them was. Symanski said he was, and Oljiec said he was, and Koncel said he was, and Czechowski said he was.
    Then Roman Orlov came in and the argument was decided. For Poor Roman has been drunk so long, night and day, that when we remember living men we almost forget Poor Roman, as though he were no longer really among the living at all.
    “The devil lives in a double-shot”, Roman explains himself obscurely. “I got a great worm inside. Gnaws and gnaws. Every day I drown him and every day he gnaws. Help me drown the worm, fellas.”
    So I bought Poor Roman a double-shot and asked him frankly how, before he was thirty, he had become the biggest drunk on Division.

The narrator has to supply him with more drinks before he’ll unburden himself with his story. Roman’s story is a short story of a childhood of poverty which has a very Dickensian feel to it, especially when Roman relates how they found out how algren_neon-wilderness_fcx-700pxthe previous tenant of their flat, who they believe is haunting them, had beaten his wife to death and then committed suicide. But, if we think that Poor Roman was traumatised by this then we’d be wrong; in some ways it brought the family together as they prayed for the man’s soul and they gained the respect of the local neighbours and priest for being so compassionate. But as Roman’s father stops going out at night it means that Roman is left without anywhere to sleep in the crowded flat and so ends up sleeping during the day and going out at nights: ‘And at night, as everyone knows, there is no place to go but the taverns.’ And so he began to spend the whole nights in a tavern awaiting dawn, the bitterest hour. In a way it’s a silly story, but it’s the story of a drunkard trying to wheedle money out of the listener—and that opening is pure brilliance.

The story stickman’s laughter concerns the poor weak-willed Banty Longobardi who has a thing for gambling. The story begins:

Banty Longobardi trudged up his own back steps; his cap was in his hand and his pay on his hip. He’d take the old woman to the Little Pulaski—triple horror feature with blue enamel ovenware to the ladies and community singing.
    But the door was locked and the woman was out, so he went down the steps again. She ought to know better than to go visiting on a community-singing, free-ovenware night.

So what does Banty do now? He goes out to the gambling rooms; but he only bets a dollar, he’s just passing time until his woman gets home…and he’s lucky…he wins…and wins again…and leaves the establishment up by forty dollars. But when he returns home his wife is still not home, he can’t stay at home all alone so he goes out again, this time to the bar to waste some time.

Then he had three shots, to relieve the ache further, and began wondering how long he’d been gone. He didn’t want to drink up too much of the extra pay roll; but he’d give her plenty of time to get home and miss him a spell too.

Banty starts to get argumentative with the bartender, who tells Banty to go home and tells him he’s just seen his wife walk past on her way home. But instead of going home he finds himself back at the gambling room. He’s in a fuddled state, he wins money, he loses money, but he’s only betting with his previous winnings. Of course, his winnings disappear and facing the stickman’s laughter at his predicament he gambles all his pay as well—and loses everything.

And so Banty returns home, shamefaced; he hopes his woman is asleep so he won’t have to explain the stituation but she calls out to him from the bedroom. There’s no escape.

    “Are you coming to bed or are you going to stand there on one foot all night?”
    When she saw him shuffling toward her she switched off the light and lay back waiting for him in the dark. When he reached the bed he had only to wait for her to take his head on her breast.
    That’s the kind of old woman Banty had himself.
    “My fault,” she assured him softly, like a storyteller making up stories to put a child to sleep. “I knew it was payday but I went out just the same. No supper for poor Banty either. Poor Banty. Lost all his money and no supper either. Wanted to go to community singing and got hisself drunked up instead.”
    She felt his tenseness lessening. Felt his tears between the shadowed valley of her breasts. And knew that they were for her.

Yes, Poor Banty indeed. He’s just like a child, unable to stay at home when his wife isn’t there, unable to stay away from the gambling rooms. I have a bit of a soft spot for weak characters, that is, as long as the author doesn’t get too mawkish. But what is brilliant about the story is the compassion and forgiveness that his wife shows him, even though he’s lost all his pay. I mean it’s not really a very realistic ending as in reality it would most likely end up with a blazing row with most people—but they don’t and that’s what makes the story great.

I’m enjoying getting reacquainted with Algren’s work and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the stories. I feel like re-reading some of his novels as well now.

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