A previously unpublished work from the author of The Man With the Golden Arm and other masterful portraits of the seamy underside of urban America. This volume, essentially a lengthy essay in book form, was written by Algren in the early 1950s, at the peak of his fame and the height of the McCarthy era. At the time, his lengthy affair with Simone de Beauvoir was coming to an unhappy end and he was throwing himself into the public arena in reaction to that private pain. Nonconformity shows its origins in those multiple traumas. Opening with a brief and mournful recollection of F. Scott Fitzgerald's ""crack-up,"" Algren jumps into a passionate defense of the writer as someone who must live out the emotions of his characters, no easy thing in an era in which all the forces of the state and the market seem to be calculated to produce conformist writing that commits nothing, dares nothing, and achieves nothing. It is a time, he writes repeatedly, in which Americans are caught ""between the H bomb and the A,"" with the threat of internal destruction greater than any threat from the so-called Red Menace. At such a time, Algren says defiantly, a writer's attitude to his readers should be ""this ain't what you rung for, Jack--but it's what you're damned well getting."" That's certainly the mind-set that dominated Algren's best writing. The afterword and notes by Simon are useful, placing the essay in a larger biographical and historical context. However, the editor's claim that this is ""Algren's only book-length work of non-fiction"" is dubious; Algren also turned out two substantial travel books and an essay of similar length on his native Chicago, each of them filled with the same corrosive writing on the American scene. That said, this is a typically refreshing breath of cigarette-smoke-filled air from one of our most underrated writers, angry and funny as Algren usually is.
Pub Date: Sept. 17, 1996
Page Count: 144
Publisher: "Seven Stories (632 Broadway, New York, NY 10012)"