Since it’s been 25 years since the only comprehensive biography of Nelson Algren (1909-1981), this discerning book is welcome.
Wisniewski, a longtime Chicago reporter, knows Algren’s home turf well. As a teenager, he was already “on the outside,” enamored with the South Side’s “neighborhood pool sharks, gamblers, bootleggers, and sandlot baseball stars.” Although a poor student in high school, he graduated from college in 1931 with a degree in journalism. Next came hitching and riding boxcars across Depression-era America, meeting the down and out and acquiring a taste for gambling that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Algren wasn’t a born writer, but with hard work and great effort, he became one. His good friend Kurt Vonnegut said he was “enchanted by the hopeless, could not take his eyes off them.” The sale of an early story about robbery and murder to a magazine for $25 helped him secure a contract for his first novel. The New York Sun described his leftist, proletarian Somebody in Boots as a novel that “does not shrink from the harsh facts of violence, rape and human wretchedness.” The Works Progress Administration provided some much-needed income after his marriage in 1938, and he flirted with communism. Richard Wright helped him find a home for his next novel, Never Come Morning, which Hemingway called “good stuff.” Back home after a stint in the Army, Nelson started a lengthy, romantic relationship with Simone de Beauvoir. Wisniewski calls it “ridiculous, exotic, corny, impossible…and amazing.” They inspired each other. Nelson’s The Man with the Golden Arm, about drug addiction, was a “hit,” and Otto Preminger’s popular film version came out in 1955 (for which Algren was paid little). A Walk on the Wild Side, which he felt was his best book, came out a year later. When the impoverished author died in 1981, all his work was out of print. It’s good to have the irascible, bohemian chronicler of the streets back via this top-notch biography.
“In backpacks across America, Algren still lives.”