I was having such a great time re-reading one of Nelson Algren’s “lesser” books — Who Lost An American? — that I scanned a little excerpt from the second story, “Down With All Hands,” and sent it to Gerard Bellaart. It struck a nerve. He sent back one of his choice Cold Turkey cards.
In some cases the stories in the collection read like a burlesque — satirical, cynical, and above all, funny. “Down With All Hands,” while still a parody, has a serious spin to it, as you can see from the excerpt, and was first published in The Atlantic Monthly. No wonder Algren was on the New York lit crowd’s shitlist.
Many of the other stories were first published in skin mags (Rogue, Playboy, and Nugget). “New York: Rapietta Greensponge, Girl Counselor, Comes to My Aid,” which begins the collection, was published in Harlequin under the title “Nobody Knows My Name.” It’s a compendium of writers with names that were meant to be recognized:
“Norman Manlifellow, boyish author of The Elk Paddock, who is running for the Presidency of American Writers” [Mailer, of course, author of The Deer Park ]; “Alfred Paperfish, Leading Footnote King” [Alfred Kazin]; “Giovanni Johnson” aka “Sixteenth Arrondissement Johnson, America’s greatest gift to Mecca since Ahmad Jamal” [James Baldwin; though Algren respected him, he disliked Giovanni’s Room ]; “Leon Urine, author of The Whole World Looks Jewish When You’re in Love” [Leon Uris, of course, author of Exodus ]; “Kenwood McCowardly, Chief Junior Editor of Doubledeal & Wunshot, a subsidiary of Ethical & Entity” [Ken McCormick, Algren’s editor and also the editor in chief at Doubleday, which published The Man With the Golden Arm ]; “Roger Blueblade, of Suckingwise, Scalpel & Tourniquet Trustworthy Publishers, who has published some of the most trustworthy volumes in circulation” [Roger Straus, Jr., of what was then Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, which published Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side ].
Who Lost An American? was published in 1963 and dedicated to Simone de Beauvoir, whose long-distance affair with Algren had pretty much ended by then. My sneaking suspicion about the title is that it’s a send-up of the McCarthy-era rightwing battle cry: “Who Lost China?” The photo of Algren on the card is by Art Shay. It appeared in Shay’s big beautiful book of black-and-white photographs, Nelson Algren’s Chicago. There’s no date on this photo, but Shay notes in his introduction that Algren “punched the heavy bag like a demon” during daily boxing workouts at the Division Street Y. So I assume that’s where this shot was taken, probably during the 1950s. Shay, now in his 90s, was a freelance photojournalist who had worked as a reporter for LIFE magazine when he took lots of great shots of Algren during his prime.
In a 2007 paperback reprint of Nelson Algren’s Chicago (retitled Chicago’s Nelson Algren), Shay writes that when “Papa Hemingway himself had just read Algren’s latest novel, The Man With the Golden Arm” — which must’ve been 1949, the year it was published — he “added his two cents worth.” Like so:
Into the world of letters where we have the fading Faulkner and where that overgrown Lil Abner Thomas Wolfe casts a shorter shadow each day, Nelson Algren comes like a corvette or even a big destroyer when one of these things is what you need and need it badly at once and for keeps. He has been around for along time but only the pros know him. . . . This is a man writing and you should not read it if you can’t take a punch. I doubt if any of you can. Mr. Algren can hit with both hands and move around and he will kill you if you are not awfully careful. . . . Boy, Mr. Algren, you are good.”
I don’t know what Shay has against Hemingway. Those two cents sound like a million bucks to me.