Following 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 the 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.