Whatever became of Nelson Algren, the novelist? It seems ages since we've been granted a work of fiction from Chicago's finest. Instead, non-books, travel-books, vendetta-books and conversation pieces. These genres come blazingly together, in Notes from a Sea Diary: in part, some nifty sketches of his picaresque idling aboard the Malaysia Mail, a dumpy ship plowing through the China Sea; on the other hand--hold on to your life belts--a defense of the one and only Ernest ""Papa"" Hemingway. Algren is full of grudges, especially against critics, those maggots who are always sounding off and with pay. ""Unsolicited opinions,"" Algren wittily advises, ""should not be telephoned collect."" What does Dwight MacDonald, that ""domesticated peacock,"" know about writing, and yet he had the nerve to put down Hemingway! Well. Algren settles his hash, and that of all the other detractors. He also provides an amusing remembrance of a visit to the Hemingway home in Cuba. In between, he knocks fellow-scriveners (""our most daring minds, from Mailer to Murph the Surf""), calls Herzog"" a compilation of literary allusions... possessing no value beyond cuteness,"" and lights into everyone whose once ""harsh artistry has flattened into smooth profundity."" No one's going to invite Algren to any more cocktail parties. And that's O.K. with him. The shore leaves in Bombay and Calcutta, the exchanges with whores, pimps, gamblers and other Oriental thoroughbreds, convey a bit of the great old Algren magic. The sub-title is Hemingway All The Way. Now that's off his chest, let's hope Algren starts frying his own fish.