Nelson Algren's New Orleans

The 1956 classic "A Walk on the Wild Side" captured the Crescent City as we'll never see it again -- seedy, brutal, alive.

Published September 7, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

As we observed the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, to trust the mainstream media, is awash in optimism. Polls suggested that many Americans are willing to forgive or at least forget the Bush administration's ineptitude and indifference, and between Fox News, CNN and USA Today, there seemed to be a cozy agreement to make the rest of the country feel as if the bon temps are ready to roll again. Those who have gone in search of the real New Orleans know different. New Orleans, not the tourist trap of Bourbon Street nailed by Walker Percy over 20 years ago as "Little more now than standard U.S. sleaze," is gone. In truth, not everyone mourns its passing; at least some of those who knew it wrote of it with bitterness and no little rancor. But understand that, with its passing something irreplaceable is gone.

Look for the old New Orleans now only in books, and start with an underground American classic that was published 50 years ago this summer, Nelson Algren's "A Walk on the Wild Side." New Orleans has inspired first-rate literature and bad movies, an irony made painfully obvious by execrable film versions of two of the best books set in the Crescent City: "WUSA" (1970) with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, from Robert Stone's corrosive novel "A Hall of Mirrors," about a right-wing radio station, and "A Walk On the Wild Side" (1962), as thorough and as inexplicable a betrayal of a great book as Hollywood has ever been guilty of. Farmed out to a serviceable hack, Edward Dmytryk, the project was compromised from the beginning by its transformation into a story about a man trying to find his girlfriend in a New Orleans brothel, an outline that didn't even preserve the bare bones of Algren's story. A terrific cast -- including the young Jane Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck and a woefully miscast Laurence Harvey in the lead -- was wasted, as was screenwriter John Fante. The film is memorable today only for a terrific score by Elmer Bernstein and Brook Benton's resonant baritone proclaiming, "You walk on the wild siiiiddde."

Algren is the eternal misfit of 20th century American letters, a writer too perverse ever to be popular and too contrarian to fit comfortably into any of the pigeonholes assigned to him by well-meaning critics. His early books -- "Somebody in Boots" (1935); "Never Come Morning" (1942), a lively tale about a journeyman boxer who beats the mob that runs the fight game by joining it; "The Neon Wilderness" (1947), a collection of short stories -- have all been pushed under the heading of Depression-era lit. But even in his early work there was a feeling of a major stylist waiting to break out.

Algren's politics were working-class leftist, inherited in large part from his father. Born in Detroit in 1909 and raised in Chicago, Algren's father was an auto mechanic of Swedish-Jewish blood and a devout socialist. (Algren's mother was also part Jewish.) The unconfirmed but persistent story is that during the war Algren was turned down for Officer Candidate School, despite being a college graduate, for having raised money for the loyalists during the Spanish Civil War. (It is known that the FBI had a file on him, which, upon examination, revealed nothing very interesting.) As a writer of fiction, though, he never bought into the unwritten rule of neo-Marxist realism, which is that class determines fate. Lower-working-class poverty was, to Algren, pretty much a given, something that the modern world would always have to deal with, no matter who is in power, and he shared neither the sentimentalism nor the fatalism of most of his contemporaries. Nor, for that matter, was he really a realist; if there could be such a category as gritty surrealist, Algren might have approved of it. Of the left-leaning low-life fiction writers who came of age in the 1930s, he is virtually the only one to have been lionized by the Beats, particularly the existentialist faction who were impressed by his long affair with Simone de Beauvoir, who based the character Lewis Brogan in "The Mandarins" on him.

His early books established Algren with a good-field, no-hit reputation that he never completely shook off, even after "The Man With the Golden Arm" came out of nowhere to win the first National Book Award in 1950. The award -- and the protagonist's morphine addiction -- produced enough publicity to give Algren his only bestseller, which got a second life in 1955 when Otto Preminger's loosely adapted film version caused a sensation. (The film overemphasized the lead character's addiction, a relatively minor point in the book. Frank Sinatra, superb in the lead role, got an Oscar nomination.)

Bestseller-dom never quite suited Algren. With his next book, a nonfiction work titled "Chicago: City on the Make" (1951), he burned most of the bridges he had built up with the success of his previous novel. A scathing indictment of the venality of Chicago's politics and the banality of its culture, Algren's book combined with A.J. Liebling's "Chicago: The Second City," published a year later, to give Chicago an inferiority complex it hasn't recovered from more than half a century later. He would have snickered at the Nelson Algren Award for Short Fiction, awarded annually by the Chicago Tribune; in 1950, the Tribune had reviewed his book on Chicago as "a highly scented object."

Algren went five years without producing another book, and what the gestation period produced in 1956 was without precedent in Algren's oeuvre. In fact, there is practically nothing like "A Walk on the Wild Side" in all the rest of American literature (though "The Knockout Artist" by the admirable and underrated Harry Crews successfully explores kindred geographic and artistic territory). In comparison, the chronicles of the Los Angeles demimonde of Charles Bukowski, an Algren admirer, are practically amiable.

Early in the 1930s, after graduating from college, Algren became, well, a bum, drifting around the country, working odd jobs, and checking out firsthand the territory John Steinbeck's Joad family fled. Stopping for a while in South Texas in the hamlet of Rio Hondo, he found work at a combination filling station-vegetable stand and somehow managed to get caught stealing a typewriter from an abandoned school. He did some time in jail with the prospect of three years hanging over his head. While sweating it out in a jail cell with Mexicans and out-of-work Anglo truck drivers, he picked up the seed for his best novel. (In his collection of essays on Texas, "In a Narrow Grave," Larry McMurtry recalls making a pilgrimage to Rio Hondo, "hoping to find the filling station where Nelson Algren once spent so much time shelling blackeyed peas. I had in mind asking the Texas Institute of Letters to make it a literary shrine." McMurtry couldn't find the stand.) From there, Algren drifted to New Orleans, where he worked con jobs that, as he revealed years later in "Conversations With Nelson Algren," he used in his novel.

"A Walk on the Wild Side" went against the grain of just about everything that was going on in American fiction in the mid-to-late 1950s. The book was set during the heart of the Depression, which had not been a big literary subject since before World War II. (Why did Algren wait till middle age to recall his experiences in Texas and Louisiana? He never said.) A handful of books like Faulkner's "Pylon" notwithstanding, New Orleans still hadn't inspired a great deal in the way of quality fiction. Depression novels -- the lodestone of which, of course, was Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" -- always looked west toward the Eden of California; Algren's Dove Linkhorn went east and to hell.

Dove is the son of a blustery, redneck loser, Fitz Linkhorn, whose only pride was that "I ain't a playin' the whore to no man." (The sentiment is kin to one expressed by Pvt. Robert E. Lee Pruitt, a character in "From Here to Eternity" by James Jones, a writer whose hardscrabble temperament was sometimes compared to Algren's. "If a man don't go his own way," Pru thought, "he's nothin'.") "Six-foot-one of slack-muscled shambler," wrote Algren, Fitz "came of a shambling race. That gander-necked clan from which Calhoun and Jackson sprang. Jesse James' and Jeff Davis' people. Lincoln's people ... Whites called them 'white trash,' and Negroes po' buckra.' Since the first rock had risen above the moving waters, there had not been a single prince in Fitzbrian's branch of the Linkhorn clan."

Algren sums him up thusly: "Had there been an International Convention of white trash that week, Fitz would have been chairman."

An itinerant preacher, Fitz raises two sons, Byron and Dove; Dove is a pure, moral idiot, as devoid of meanness as he is of any sense of right or wrong. He "could not remember a time, a place, nor a single person, house cat or hound dog that had sought his affection." The Linkhorns live in Arroyo, a town modeled after Rio Hondo, their shanty made of "upended green-pine clapboard so dried and shrunk it left chinks for rain and wind, made a kind of slum Alamo right in the middle of Mexican-town  Davey Crockett was gone for good." They were, says Algren, "backwoodsmen with no backwoods." With nothing to hold him to his desolate border home, Dove hits the rails, and after misadventures with a traveling carnie and a teenage Texas hooker named Kitty Twist (whom he will meet again), Dove arrives in Depression New Orleans:

"The town that always seems to be rocking. Rocked by its rivers, then by its trains, between boat bell and train bell go its see-saw hours. The town of the poor-boy sandwich and chicory coffee, where garlic hangs on strings and truckers sleep in their trucks, where mailmen wore pitch helmets and the people burned red candles all night in long old-fashioned lamps."

The New Orleans Dove finds is centered on Perdido Street in the French Quarter of the 1930s, a couple of decades before the tourists began to descend en masse. Walker Percy's Binx Bolling, in "The Moviegoer," who lived in the middle-class suburb Gentilly, and who loathed the old-world atmosphere of the Quarter, could have lived in the same city at the same time for decades without encountering anyone from Dove's world. Because so much of lost New Orleans always seemed suspended in the Depression, some of it still could be seen by college students in the 1970s and 1980s who were in town for, say, a Rolling Stones concert and slept in the Quarter's huge, gloomy old rooming houses with "long green walls and those long spook-halls that are shadowed by fixtures of another day. That damp dull green the very hue of distrust, where every bed you rent makes you accessory to somebody else's shady past." Shady, shades, shadows; New Orleans appeared to the outsider to be a city composed of shadows. What Nabokov said of Andre Biely's St. Petersburg might also be said of Algren's New Orleans: The writer examined "the biology of the shadow."

The New Orleans of "A Walk on the Wild Side" is inhabited by thieves, con artists, barflies, pool sharks, pimps and hookers: "Every time an operator padlocked a mine or a mill in West Virginia, Alabama, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, or Southern Illinois, a fresh flock of chicks would hit town and start turning tricks for the price of a poor-boy sandwich and a bottle of Dr. Pepper's." People such as a petty criminal called Cross-Country Kline with "a face that looked as if it had been lined into the grandstand and lined right back," who offers Dove advice like, "Blow wise to this, buddy: Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own."

Dove, of course, takes no one's advice, blithely wading through a gumbo of misfits and malcontents, stumbling into a career as a stud in a peep show. Innocence, however, can only protect Dove for so long. Requital arrives in the form of a monster, Legless Schmidt, a former circus strongman from Alabama "with an IBM brain in the body of a honeyfed bear." Schmidt earned his nickname by falling asleep on a railroad track; his monstrous arms propel his massive torso around on a dolly. Dove steals a hooker Legless is in love with; Schmidt takes his revenge by beating Dove bloody, leaving him blind. And then, in a twist that would have even Brecht's jaw dropping, the barflies who goaded Legless into his frenzy dump his dolly down a hill, where he crashes to his death. His wings singed, Dove, sightless but optimistic and oblivious as ever, returns to Texas from the inferno purified, and finds his life's calling as a preacher, a benevolent version of his father.

"A Walk on the Wild Side" was never the book that literary folk in New Orleans suggested you read if you wanted to know the "real" New Orleans, probably because it lifted a rock to reveal a city they didn't want to admit had ever existed. (You could visit New Orleans several times without anyone ever telling you that the city was home to America's original slave market.) You usually had to find out about "A Walk on the Wild Side" from the weirdest kid in your class, the one who had also read Baudelaire and Rimbaud and perhaps even François Villon (who, come to think of it, were probably three of Algren's leading influences).

It took a Swedish-German-Jewish leftie from Chicago to create a marriage of Protestant hellfire and Catholic decadence -- as American a vision as anything Hemingway or Faulkner ever wrote. Something about New Orleans inspired, enraged and finally liberated Algren's imagination in a way that Chicago never quite did. "A Walk on the Wild Side," from cover to cover, is written in a prose that is, alternately, incandescent and hallucinatory, with long choruslike passages of description punctuated with short staccato jazz riffs of dialogue -- a rhythm ideally attuned to the birthplace of jazz. (Michael Swindle, a New Orleans poet, calls Algren "The Man With the Golden Ear.")

I doubt if any of Algren's books will ever be required reading for college English, especially his best novel, despite a ringing and heartfelt endorsement from Ernest Hemingway. The stuffed-shirt literary humanist establishment point of view was expressed in 1956 in the New York Times by Alfred Kazin, who was offended by "the plainly contrived quality of this pretended feeling about characters who Mr. Algren writes about not because they are 'lost,' but because they are freaks" (Kazin had not a notion that such people passed for average in Algren's New Orleans). And in the New Yorker Norman Podhoretz haughtily dismissed the book with "Mr. Algren's purpose is not well served by laughs out of 'Tobacco Road'." In the introduction to the paperback reissue, Russell Banks, with a stronger stomach for cayenne peppers than Kazin and Podhoretz, called "A Walk on the Wild Side" "An American classic  to be read alongside 'Huckleberry Finn,' 'The Red Badge of Courage,' and 'Native Son'" -- that last comparison being right on target. Banks sees Algren as "Driven by a permanent democrat's righteous wrath and injustice, informed by unsentimental respect and unabashed affection for the powerless, in language colored throughout by the pain of some unnamed, deeply personal wound whose nature we can only intuit." Time has brought us no closer to naming that pain or easing the sense of dread it gave birth to.

Maybe it's for the best that "A Walk on the Wild Side" will never be respectable, that it seems as horrific (and unfilmable) as it did half a century ago. And perhaps because of that it continues to reverberate in pop culture while most respectable books of its time are now unread. In 1976, the Tubes dedicated the song "Pimp" off the album "Young and Rich" to Algren, and a couple of years ago the Minnesota band Dillinger Four recorded "Doublewhiskeycokenoice," in which "Nelson Algren came to me and said; celebrate the ugly things cause the beat up side of what they call pride could be the measure of these days." And then, of course, there's Lou Reed, who discussed the Algren influence in the 2001 documentary "Classic Albums: Lou Reed: Transformer." In 1972, Reed had been hired to write the music for a stage production of Algren's novel -- about as improbable a project as Off-Off-Off Broadway could have envisioned -- and finally quit, but not before appropriating Algren's title and his sensibility and transferring them to his own New York neighborhood bohos.

Every Dove, Lou Reed seems to be saying, will find his wild side.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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