Bart Schneider reviews Nelson Algren's book "Nonconformity: Writing on Writing".

By Bart Schneider
Published September 19, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

In 1953, Nelson Algren, the great Chicago author of "The Man with the Golden Arm" and "A Walk on the Wild Side," was set to publish the extended essay that makes up the heart of this volume. But, in the midst of the McCarthy era, Algren became a named name. Doubleday forfeited his small advance and washed its hands of the book.

Now, 40-odd years later, after a decade of dogged sleuthing by publisher Daniel Simon and his associates, this splendid volume has finally been issued. The manuscript that Algren (1909-1981) left behind is a pastiche of rantings on the ethics of the modern writer, cobbled together with longish quotes from novelists Algren favored and despised. A tough-guy populist, Algren was fascinated by F. Scott Fitzgerald's moral plight and uses Fitzgerald to set the tension for this essay. "The struggle to write with profundity of emotion and at the same time to live like a millionaire," Algren writes, "so exhausted F. Scott Fitzgerald that he was at last brought down to the point where he could no longer be both a good writer and a decent person."

At times, Algren's rambling essay is closer to notebook jottings than to a meditation by Montaigne. But where else can you find such bully bursts of hyperbolic language, demanding to be read aloud? "From the penthouse suspended silently so high above the winding traffic's iron lamentation, forty straight-down stories into those long, low, night-blue bars aglow below street-level, a lonely guilt pervades us all." And who else mixes quotes from Simone de Beauvoir (the lover who broke Algren's heart) and Leo Durocher into a single essay? De Beauvoir may have stolen his heart, but Durocher's was the kind of mug Nelson saw when he looked in the mirror. What kind of advice was Algren offering writers when he provided the context for Durocher's nice-guys-finish-last riff? "Say I'm playing short and Mother is on first and the batter singles to right. Mother comes fast around second with the winning run -- Mother will have to go down. I'll help her up, dust her off and say, 'Mom, I'm sorry, but it was an accident' -- but she won't have scored."

At 16 bucks and beautifully bound -- it may be among the best coffee table books of the year -- "Nonconformity" is a steal, a few strokes of wonderful writing combined with an excellent bit of literary archeology.

Bart Schneider

Bart Schneider is the editor of The Hungry Mind Review.

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