Low Life

Never a Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren BY Colin Asher. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 560 pages. $39

Call it a curse for an American writer to be born in 1909. These authors matured into the Depression; were subject, if male, to the draft during wartime; passed into middle age during the Red Scare; and, if they were lucky enough to see the 1960s, witnessed liberations they were too old to savor. They also witnessed a sea change in American literary fashions, as the naturalism of the 1930s was demoted by a cadre of critics reorganizing the canon around Henry James. Some of them weren’t very lucky at all. A roll call includes James Agee, dead at forty-five of a heart attack in the back of a taxi; Daniel Fuchs, a Brooklyn prodigy whose talents were drained dry in Hollywood; Chester Himes, imprisoned at age nineteen and later self-exiled to France, where he suffered a stroke at age fifty-three. Happier were Eudora Welty, a genius fully recognized in her lifetime, and Wallace Stegner, who became the model of the novelist as creative-writing professor.

The sorrows of Nelson Algren, as Colin Asher’s new biography Never a Lovely So Real shows, have the particular flavor of twentieth-century American pathologies. Split the career into halves, and the first is a triumph over adversity, a steady rise founded on dedicated research into life on the streets of Chicago and other destitute zones and a monastic devotion to the craft of writing. The second half of his career reads like a conspiracy to spoil a real talent—a plot in which the malefactors are the New York Intellectuals, Manhattan publishing, the FBI, and a few of Algren’s own demons. By breaking his heart and then telling the story to the world, Simone de Beauvoir didn’t exactly help matters. It was de Beauvoir who recognized Algren’s dual nature: “the smart, daring, talented, conceited local youth” and “the stupid, shy, off-balanced crocodile.”

Frank Sinatra in Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955.

A working-class Chicago boy, son of a Jewish machinist, Algren studied journalism at the University of Illinois, and graduated in 1931 into an economy in collapse—a crisis, Asher reports, that he was only “vaguely aware of” as a student. Unable to find work on a newspaper, he traveled south, hopped freight trains, took work where he could find it, got involved in scams, and saw the inside of jail cells. Drifting radicalized him: America had let itself become a nation of beggars. It wasn’t the country he’d read about in books. After a year on the road, he sold a piece of fiction—“So Help Me,” about running an abandoned gas station in Texas with a couple of other drifters, a scheme that devolves into a murderous double-cross—to Story and was appearing alongside William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston at age twenty-five. His voice was slangy and lyrical, a style he cultivated writing letters on the road. It was above all authentic. “I got the ol’ experience,” one Algren character says. “I’m smart as a craphouse rat.” Kurt Vonnegut summed up Algren’s legacy another way: “He broke new ground by depicting persons said to be dehumanized by poverty and ignorance and injustice as being genuinely dehumanized, and dehumanized quite permanently.”

Algren found a mentor in Jack Conroy, the hard-drinking editor of The Anvil, who introduced him to the work of proletarian writers like James T. Farrell. His first stories got him a deal for a novel from Vanguard Press, and he hit the road again to gather more material. With his deadline looming, he stole a typewriter he’d been using at a Texas college, and was arrested at a train station on his way back to Chicago. He spent weeks in jail, but when his case came to trial, his lawyer, Wigfall Van Sickle, a well-respected local lush, told the jury that Algren was a writer and needed the typewriter to survive: “You would not be hard on a carpenter or a craftsman if he stole the tools necessary to his livelihood. This man before you stole the means of work to earn his loaf of bread.”

The result was a guilty verdict and a suspended sentence. Algren went back to Chicago and finished his novel, working out of the John Reed Club and the apartment of a girlfriend with a typewriter. He joined the Communist Party and befriended Richard Wright. The pair became coeditors of its magazine, Left Front. Vanguard accepted the manuscript but on Farrell’s advice demanded that Algren remove an interracial marriage and change the title from Native Son to Somebody in Boots. (Algren would give his original title, from a line in a folk song, to Wright.) The book garnered some positive reviews but sold fewer than eight hundred copies and quickly went out of print. Algren attempted suicide by putting a gas pipe in his mouth.

Friends took him in, and he spent a few days in a psychiatric hospital. He went with Wright to the First American Writers’ Congress and embarrassed himself onstage, mumbling that his book hadn’t sold. He moved back in with his parents, despairing that he’d become a failure; his mother called his writing trash without reading it. Soon he met twenty-three-year-old Amanda Kontowicz, and the two moved in together, surviving on her savings and milk and tomato juice Algren stole off the streets. He did a series of odd jobs, hosing off wealthy patrons of a gymnasium and loading trucks.

But soon Wright got Algren a job as a writer in a WPA program. Though Amanda harbored middle-class aspirations he couldn’t meet, they married in 1937. When the split came in the Communist Party over the Moscow show trials, he and Wright sided with the Soviet Union because it was still sending guns and money to fight fascism in Spain. A brawl between Stalinists and Trotskyists at a fundraiser landed Algren in jail and earned him a scolding from a party official, Frank Meyer, who decades later, after turning to the right, would be literary editor of National Review. Two of Algren’s ex-friends from the party would snitch on him to the FBI.

Algren fell in with a group of radicals led by Lawrence “Bud” Fallon, an aluminum worker with literary dreams. The Fallonites declared themselves “hipsters in artistic revolt against the establishment,” but “in truth,” Asher writes, “they were just clever, violent drunks, and people were drawn to them for their novelty, not their intellectual pretensions.” They might not have been writers themselves, but following the Fallonites, Algren gathered material for his second novel, Never Come Morning, a panoramic portrait of Chicago’s “Polish Triangle.” The novel’s plot hinges on a night when boxer Bruno “Lefty Biceps” Bicek allows a group of men from the neighborhood to gang-rape his girlfriend Steffi, then kills one of them while she mockingly shouts to the others, “Next! Next!” Bruno goes to jail, Steffi into prostitution. It’s a story of brutalization told with tremendous empathy and sociological precision.

A break with Amanda occurred after she went home with another man during a night of heavy drinking. Algren made noises about killing the man, but instead fell into another depression until the publication of Wright’s Native Son, which turned out to be galvanizing. Algren wrote to Wright that he had seen the book as “a personal threat” because it was so brilliant, but that his anger quickly transformed: “I don’t see how anyone could stay angry, assuming he’s got a notion of what it’s all about, because, of course, you’re right, sociologically and psychologically and you can’t stay angry at patent truth.” Wright helped Algren secure a contract with Harper & Brothers, and when Never Come Morning appeared in 1942, the reviews were ecstatic. But sales were another story: The war didn’t help things, and protests from Chicago’s Polish community hurt the book locally. Algren lost his WPA job because writing a novel counted as outside work. After a brief reunion, Amanda moved to California, and in July 1943, Algren was drafted into the Army.

He saw the last month of fighting in Germany, then spent weeks living off the black market in France. Coming home, he was ready to “write and simply not be preoccupied either with politics or with anything that wasn’t pertinent to myself.” In Chicago, Algren found a city that had started telling a false story about itself, a new commercial culture that ignored the persistent poverty. Kenneth McCormick, the editor in chief of Doubleday and an admirer of Never Come Morning, visited him and offered to pay him $60 a week over two years for a collection of stories and a novel. The arrangement proved ideal for Algren’s work ethic: He wasn’t too desperate, but he wasn’t so flush that he could get into much trouble gambling. It gave him time to revise his novel about a veteran returning to low-life Chicago. Out of a set of characters at the Tug & Maul bar, a story of degradation, humiliation, murder, and betrayal emerges that leads the hero, Frankie Machine, to suicide.

What Algren hadn’t registered until the first draft was complete was the burgeoning heroin epidemic in Chicago. Algren had always made use of unconventional methods in his research, often attending police line-ups at the local precinct to get an idea of both the character of city crime and the characters committing it. Now he grew close to a prostitute named Paula Bays, who’d become a junkie and enlisted his help in getting clean (a pattern the pair would repeat several times as she relapsed). Algren revised his manuscript to make Frankie Machine an addict who got his first shot of morphine from an Army medic after suffering a wound in action, lending his material greater social relevance in the midst of what we’d now call a public health crisis. One alternate title: Bedbugs Don’t Bite Junkies.

It was in February 1947 that Algren was summoned to the Palmer House Hotel by a mysterious voice on the phone. Simone de Beauvoir, holding an issue of Partisan Review, had been told by Wright to look Algren up. He took her out to clubs and saloons and she spent the night with him. The affair lasted years, during trips de Beauvoir made to the US and a couple that Algren made to Paris. Because de Beauvoir documented the relationship so thoroughly—in the travelogue America Day by Day, in her Prix Goncourt–winning novel The Mandarins, and in her book of letters to Algren, Beloved Chicago Man (Algren to an interviewer: “I think Madame de Beauvoir has invaded her own privacy”)—Algren is more famous today as her muse than for his own work. The episode is a pivot in both their lives. Their masterpieces, The Second Sex and The Man with the Golden Arm, both appeared in 1949. By then their love was already faltering. Though she declared him her “husband” and herself his “wife,” de Beauvoir always refused to abandon her life in Paris with Jean-Paul Sartre, and during her “honeymoon” trip with Algren in Mexico in 1948 told him she would be returning to France a month early to be with Sartre (his own lover had cut a trip of theirs short).

The episode is also a turning point in Asher’s biography. There’s a breeziness to the book’s tone that suits the first half of Algren’s life, even as he passes through phases of stoicism, penury, and suicidal depression. As Algren’s career reaches its peak, Asher commits a few acts of unforced corniness. When Algren sets off to visit de Beauvoir in Paris in the spring of 1949, Asher writes, “The ship began its journey across the Atlantic the same day, and Nelson must have felt relieved when the American shore disappeared. Every mile of ocean he crossed was a mile separating him from his tiny apartment, a mile closer to Beauvoir, and a step toward the next chapter of his career.” Asher’s “must have” is a slip from a scrupulous adherence to sources, even when they contradict one another.

When Algren wins the National Book Award for Golden Arm in 1950, he’s pictured holding the plaque “the way a father might display a newborn child.” It’s true Algren desired a functional domesticity around this time, despite how useless he proved at it in his first and second marriages to Amanda (who returned to his life in 1950), but Asher seems too determined for his hero to get a respectable makeover: “Nelson was famous by early 1950, and entirely unprepared. He had no idea what to do with the money he was making, and hadn’t even considered trading up for more acceptable friends.” Trading up socially, as Asher well knows, was against his subject’s nature, so why even suggest it? Algren stuck to his political beliefs, organizing on behalf of the Rosenbergs and the Hollywood Ten. He continued to keep company with gamblers, junkies, and prostitutes, often doing his best to give them a leg up, as he did with Bill Hackett, one of the models for Frankie Machine. Algren bailed him out of jail and tried to get him a job as a consultant on the film adaptation of The Man with the Golden Arm.

Hollywood did Algren more harm than good. All the parties involved with the first attempt to adapt the novel were put on the blacklist. The rights were sold to Otto Preminger. He and Algren disliked each other instantly, but Algren could neither halt the production nor obtain the proceeds he felt he was entitled to when the movie became a hit starring Frank Sinatra. Fees from the lawsuit he filed, along with alimony he paid Amanda and losses incurred at poker tables, put Algren in debt. Asher reports that, although Algren’s novels sold in the millions, because most of the sales were in pulp paperbacks he never saw much in the way of royalties; if his most popular books had appeared after the advent of the trade paperback, he might have been a millionaire.

At the height of the McCarthy era, Doubleday refused to publish his book-length essay on dissent, Nonconformity, and the State Department refused to issue him a new passport. Doubleday also turned down Algren’s next novel, Walk on the Wild Side, an extensive rewrite of Somebody in Boots, on grounds of obscenity. The novel’s hero, Dove Linkhorn, performs in sex shows under the name “Big Stingaree” for peeping middle-class hypocrites who are the object of the book’s scorn. Doubleday had been through the wringer publishing Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County. Algren sold Wild Side to Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, a relationship that became another morass soon enough. Depression returned, Algren was again briefly institutionalized, and on the morning of New Year’s Eve, 1956, he plunged through the ice of a lagoon near his home in Gary, Indiana. He was rescued by roofers working on a nearby house. His close friends believed this was another suicide attempt, but he always denied it. He abandoned a novel he was writing about Paula Bays, sold the film rights to Walk on the Wild Side to a producer he despised, and started to rely on public appearances for his income, making pronouncements Asher terms “cynical, detached, and self-pitying.”

Asher is an insightful literary critic, a charming hagiographer, and, occasionally, a reluctant scold. He blames Algren for distorting his own public image over the last two decades of his life. It’s hard to escape the implication that if Algren had died in his forties—instead of from a heart attack at seventy-two—he might be remembered today as a legend, like Agee. As his title suggests, Asher is attracted to the sentimental streak in Algren’s work, present even in novels that end with their heroes hanging themselves or on their way to the electric chair. Asher’s disappointment in his subject’s bitter turn comes through in the second half of Never a Lovely So Real, but he also shows that Algren had plenty of reasons for his disillusionment and increasingly erratic behavior. He was never publicly blacklisted, but the FBI had his neighbors informing on him and had made trouble for him with Doubleday. The New York Intellectuals turned on him: Leslie Fiedler declared him “a museum piece—the last of the proletarian writers.”

It was a shortsighted judgment. Even the aging-crocodile Algren is a marvel, if a prickly one. Asher notes that an Algren piece on the Kentucky Derby (commissioned and later spiked by Sports Illustrated) could have served as a prototype for the New Journalism. The same goes for his 1965 Notes from a Sea Diary: Hemingway All the Way, which combines an account of a freighter trip across the Pacific with an homage to the man who, after reading Golden Arm, told him, “OK, kid, you beat Dostoyevsky.” Today we might call it a bibliomemoir. And instead of dismissing Algren as the last in a line running from Dreiser and Hemingway through Dos Passos and Farrell, better we see him as a link in a chain connecting reporter-novelists and literary journalists as varied as Norman Mailer, William S. Burroughs, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, and, lately, Geoff Dyer, Elif Batuman, and Nico Walker. That’s not to mention writers who benefited from his interventions before they were published, like Don DeLillo and Russell Banks. Mailer himself declared Algren the “Grand Odd-Ball” and told a story of visiting Chicago police lineups where the cops and the suspects seemed to be imitating characters from his novels while “Nelson laughed like a mad tourist from Squaresville who was hearing these things for the first time.” He was not a saint and was often a betrayer of his own talent. To his credit, Asher never entirely gives up on him, and his book succeeds in filling the reader with the desire to read Algren’s books. De Beauvoir never lost faith in him either. In the Paris tomb where she’s buried next to Sartre, she’s wearing Algren’s ring.

Christian Lorentzen is a writer living in New York.