Nelson Algren’s “A Walk on the Wild Side” is one of the great American novels of the 20th century. The title — popularized and co-opted as an idiomatic phrase by Hollywood and Madison Ave (institutions Algren loathed) — is familiar to most anyone who speaks English or knows Lou Reed’s lyrics. But the novel itself? Hardly.
When “Walk” first appeared, in 1956, the literary critics pretty much told Algren to take a hike, and for the many years since, they’ve pretty much ignored him and it. Now the British have brought out a 50th anniversary edition. Richard Flanagan, writing in The Telegraph, notes that the novel “made a mockery of the American dream. Set among the pimps, whores and con men of New Orleans, it was a brave — and prescient — exposé of the nation’s contempt for its own people.” Small wonder the lit crits of the ’50s dismissed it.
Last year the Brits also brought out a new edition of an earlier novel, “The Man With the Golden Arm,” the one that made Algren famous for a while. Apparently Brits who like to read the real thing, not to mention Aussies (Flanagan is one), have a history of appreciating him.
But so do savvy Americans. Although “Walk” and “Arm” have both been out of print from time to time on this side of the pond, they’re available again in trade paperback editions (“Walk” with a remarkable appreciation by Russell Banks, “Arm” with memoirs by Studs Terkel and Kurt Vonnegut, as well as essays and appreciations by Mike Royko, John Clellon Holmes and Maxwell Geismar). Seven Stories Press has also re-issued a handful of other titles.
Flanagan’s take on Algren’s life and work is exactly right. Go read it. Before you do, though, have a look at a personal reminiscence of the man himself by Roger Groening, an old friend of Algren’s, who writes that “if he’d never written a word, he would have been a spectacular human being.” Which is not to suggest anything remotely saccharine.
AMATEUR NIGHT WAY OUT EAST
By Roger Groening
“It’s a mean, sick city,” Nelson Algren wrote me after arriving as a correspondent for the Atlantic in Saigon late in 1968. “Poverty, pimpery, parades, Col. Ky, thousands of cowboys on Hondas with nothing to do all day and night but race the streets. And the American GI’s who want to go home. And the people wishing the hell they would go home. The Americans are definitely not liked here.
“What the war is about isn’t what the papers say it’s about. It’s not about freedom, love of country, national pride, or democracy. It’s about the Vietnamese, American, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Australian, and Indian businessmen making a very fast, fat buck and wanting it to last and last.”
And always dreaming of the fast buck himself — having seen writers not good enough to write his laundry lists make millions — it was only days before the old blackmarketeer, the nylon, cigarette and Eisenhower jacket king of Marseilles found his chance.
“Meanwhile,” he continued, “I want to get hold of a few American C-notes. Do you have any? A C is worth about $190 in piasters. More if you risk going into the streets after it. I’m not quite out of C-notes, and also have Traveler’s Checks — highly negotiable — but am holding them out of circulation so as to have something to get out of town with in a hurry, if need be.
“If you have a C — one — and have it to spare, you might do this: slip it — WITHOUT FOLDING — into a sheet of carbon paper with the inky side out. Then scratch some words of wisdom, in that fine Italian hand, onto a letter and send the whole mess to me at the above address.”
The Eric Ambler tone was new and so was the hint of complicity, but the request for a loan came as no surprise. I’d lent Nelson money a few times before, and when he was flush he always repaid me promptly. I couldn’t have guessed that this loan would take him years to pay back, or that those years would be so filled with disappointment and hard, unforgiving times.
“Another helpful item would be a little book of UN repeat UN-personalized checks. I have the personalized kind myself but there might be a kickback there. Send them separately, if you have any handy.”
Obviously, this Algren was preparing to engage in some serious action, knew the nature of the task ahead and the tools required. “He’s come to the right man,” I said to my wife. “The guy’s a criminal wizard.” She didn’t agree, I remember. In fact, she threatened to cut me up small, real small, she said, like a boarding-house pie, when I announced I was going to the bank. But the intrigue, the possibility of sure-fire second-hand adventure, the very idea of the thing, the daring of the concept, was irresistible. With clandestine delight, I followed my confederate’s instructions. Fingers crossed, my wife’s eyes hooded, I set myself to wait patiently, bravely, come what may.
I didn’t have to wait long.
“The C-note came through!” shouted the news from Saigon. “The carbon paper tip, which an Australian hustler gave me, actually works. There is no such think as putting a trailer on a letter here — if, when held up to the light, a check, money order or cash shows through, you don’t get it, and that’s it.
“I’m highly pleased at my ingenuity and at your recklessness.”
So was I.
“Anyhow,” he calculated, “I’ll get 20,000 Vietnamese dollars with your C. With the V money I’ll buy MPC (Military Payment Certificates), paying 17,000 for a hundred in MPC.” Master of his subject and even its lingo, Nelson A. was expert and clearly at ease in the shadow world. “MPC is the real money here because it is the only money negotiable in the American PX’s. And the American PX’s, of course, are the source of everything the blackmarket requires: cameras, typewriters, tape recorders, record players, etc. These sell cheap in the PX and sell dear on the market.
“Can you spare some more C’s?”
So, along with what at the time I believed to be a half-dozen or so others, I cast my vote for the free enterprise system and became an investor in one dandy small businessman. Nelson stopped covering the war. He left Saigon only once to observe troop activities in the jungle by air. Some shots were fired and his plane damaged. Convinced that there was a real enemy out there intent on killing him, he retreated, permanently. “I’m living in Cholon, which is poorer and more colorful than Saigon. It’s where the hoods operate. The real war is being fought around the Cholon PX,” he announced.
I really didn’t know Nelson Algren very well in 1968, not as I was to later. We’d corresponded for a few years, talked frequently on the telephone, and met half-a-dozen times in New York and Chicago, where I’d stayed with him for a few days the year before. I was amazed by the speed and ferocity of his intelligence and his wild uncontrolled humor and enthusiasm, and touched by his warm interest in someone who was little more than a kid, and by his kindness. Having listened to him recall his adventures in Marseilles after the war [WWII], I thought it very unlikely he’d be outsmarted in this new scheme, but I did warn him to be wary, for surely there were dangerous factors at play in that midnight city. After all, it didn’t take any great perception to conclude that whoever his associates were, they operated not for a brief triumphant score, a substantial grubstake, but to survive in a vicious and wasted, thoroughly amoral, almost anarchic country. Nelson wanted only to out-guile the Orient and raise money to buy a not so little house somewhere by the ocean, a wish he frequently expressed, and which he innocently believed this opportunity in Vietnam was heaven-sent to make concrete. They had to be playing strictly for keeps and a single day. Smug and intrepid, he wrote back to reassure me:
I fear no oriental scamp. I learned how to handle them watching Wallace Reid handle Dr. Fu Manchu. Later I found certain flaws in Warner Oland and Roland Winters. Thanks for the C’s and your confidence.
Do you have anymore? There’s a deal I hate to pass up on electric typewriters.
And so on.
What he did, of course, was reinvest whatever I sent him and the considerable profits of up to a thousand percent and maybe even more per item back into the enterprise. At the end he must have been dealing with a classical American buck and certainly a fortune in piasters.
We can consider, then, the bizarre spectacle of Nelson Algren, the first National Book Award winner, Hemingway’s best bet for the future of American letters, skulking every day in the streets of Cholon, Major Algren (his official press identity, and it pleased him greatly), hawking his various PX-purchased wares, buttonholing strangers, cajoling them with unforgotten carny rhapsodies of Sony and Ampex, Leica and Nicon, Olivetti and Remington, Webcor and Magnavox, Kool’s, Winston’s, Salem’s, Zenith! Then, having snared his wide-eyed, unsuspecting mark, guiding hand on the buyer’s elbow, quickly up to his living quarters and storeroom for the exchange.
(Having failed over the course of three years to make PFC in WWII, due, he claimed, to his unwillingness to assume the responsibility, his sudden leap in rank reflected careful study and analysis of Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Civil War campaigns.)
The scheme sounded too good, too easy, much too risky to possibly last. The Vietnam experience, looking back, seems to be prophetically emblematic of the years to come. The childlike credulity that made him accept some ludicrous tales, the strange savvy innocence and unquestioning openness to experience that was his great gift as a writer, his dreaming longing, didn’t serve him well in Vietnam. (We had a furious argument in 1970 when I questioned his assertion that Mike Nichols was making $1,000,000 a day. He also believed that the Chicago heavyweight who was KO’d in 1940 by Joe Louis and the current country and western singer Johnny Paycheck were the same man.) He was, as it turned out, dealing with folks who would reflexively kill, if other measures failed. They didn’t fail with Nelson. Details are sketchy, but after what appears to have been a contest of wits about price in a dispute with a particularly greedy and nasty duo, he was savagely beaten and robbed, and he left Saigon broke and in need of dentures.
Still, he wouldn’t or couldn’t entertain the notion that he wasn’t a natural, high-style criminal, the hustler’s hypnotic hustler. Failure in Cholon was the fault of the Vietnamese. From Hong Kong: “Finally surfaced after those months under the stagnant waters of Saigon,” he wrote. “Coming up on the Kowloon side is like returning to the living. O those Vietnamese! I guess my basic gripe about them — beyond the slyness, the mischievousness, the abject servility, the listlessness and the dispirited air — is really that they’re so goddam unoriginal. They just keep saying ‘Numba one, Give me kendy, numba ten, Zippo lighter, give cigarette, Coca-Cola, me wuv you too much …’ and on and on.”
Years later I found out there were no other backers. Perhaps he was refused, or simply knew no one else would support, even encourage him in such a venture.
Putting notes on Saigon together, it simmers down to very little for five months’ work. You never realize how little you have, or how close you came, till after you’ve left a place. But I sure as hell ain’t going back.
And he didn’t. He came back to Chicago, and that was no longer the place for him to be. An assignment from Esquire and his own restlessness brought him to New Jersey and the sad, unproductive involvement with Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and one of the most complex, baffling, infuriating homicide cases of the decade. He carried with him from Chicago that same wounded innocence, that same naive conviction that, yes, everything is going to be fine. But nothing would ever be really fine again. Nelson Algren was truly a Thurber man. Few things ever went right for him; still, he never stopped trying. He rarely owned anything, from a toaster to a T.V. that worked or, if it did, and he hadn’t been overcharged for it, that he could operate. He was also the target of improbable accusations. A lunatic landlady ejected him from his Paterson, N.J., apartment for, she claimed, running a karate school in his living room.
(The same woman persuaded the gullible and superstitious Nelson that her late husband had been driven mad by the installation of a coronary pacemaker and had perished as a result. Nelson’s absolute and unquestioning belief in her story, even after she’d proven herself to be a fantasist of the first rank, and fear of consequent insanity, led him to refuse a pacemaker after a first heart attack, a decision that probably led to his death.)
Next he found a place in Hackensack and was briefly happy there, when suddenly the owner sold that building and it was eviction time again. It took him months of living amid packed corrugated cartons before he found another suitable apartment, this time in Bethpage, L.I. The moving men came and he arrived only to find the landlady there had changed her mind, and denied him entrance. This time he stayed with the movers, who compassionately took him in for over a month. And on and on.
Finally, after further bizarre comic-tragic misadventures, Nelson settled in Sag Harbor, which he loved, where nothing went smoothly either, and in which he had less than a year to live. Still, I never saw him depressed, though I knew he had to be or heard him complain without joking, and it was a rare event that didn’t release an unusual observation.
Amazing weather phenomenon: a blizzard came up and, as it blizzarded, it began getting colder and colder and colder — until the blizzard itself froze, I was looking out the window when it happened — the snowflakes stopped in mid-air, stippling the whole city with white dots! The fire department had to come out and chop the flakes down individually, so the blizzard could get started again.
Next morning I found a wolf frozen to death on the back porch. I sold the head to a friendly eskimo, who gets a bounty for it.
Or, after a good day at the races, remembering a teaching stint at the U. of Florida: “Unhappy, there’s no horse track in Gainesville. They play dogs chasing a mechanical rabbit down there. No thank you — not unless they have cats for jockeys.”
And then he was dead.
With him American naturalism had its final, golden moment; his work was both poetic and hilarious in the tradition of Mark Twain, deeply disturbing and heartbreakingly beautiful. But forget the writing. Far greater than Nelson’s talent was his heart, and if he’d never written a word he would have been a spectacular human being. His death was a tragic loss to the world of laughter, to the spirit and example of generosity and courage, and an irremediable aching blow to the friends who loved Nelson Algren and will miss him as long as they live.
In Notes From A Sea Diary, he posed the question: “And of the American writers of our time, which one, given a single choice, would you bring back to life?,” and answered that for him it would have to be Hemingway.
Well, for me the choice is much simpler. Of all the men I’ve known, now gone, if I could select one to re-animate, to once again, a little grumpily, answer the phone or open the door when I rang, that would have to be Nelson Algren.
Nelson Algren all the way.
© 1988 by Roger Groening. Reprinted with the permission of the author and the Chicago Public Library, Special Collections Division, from the pamphlet “Writing in the First Person: Nelson Algren 1909-1981,” which accompanied a 1988 exhibit of Algren manuscripts and memorabilia at The Chicago Public Library Cultural Center. It was organized by Laura Linard and curated by Catherine Ingraham.