. . . upon the great is a risk that every biographer takes. Mary Wisniewski has taken it, and it defeats her. Old friends of Nelson Algren whom he later spurned, to say nothing of his enemies, get their chance to lay into him now, 35 years after his death, in her mistitled and pedestrian Algren: A Life.
I say mistitled because the book is actually a skim of his life. It wastes words on peculiar trivia (like the “anal itching” that “troubled” him during his World War II army service), and it offers sentimental claptrap (like a deathbed nursing home scene in which his temperamentally nasty mother, whom he deeply disliked, mistakes the hiss from a steam radiator for “voices coming from below,” prompting Wisniewski to write: “He felt that she had put her last strength into poetry. They had something in common at last.”)
I say pedestrian because the book is written in journeyman prose. It’s dull, much too often a catalogue of plot summaries of Algren’s fiction, and too deferential to summary judgments by old critics of his, which may be the greatest revenge upon a writer of genius. As I’ve noted before (in Ticket to New Jersey), “The man wrote like nobody else. It wasn’t just the strength of his convictions and the grace of his prose that set him apart. It was his personality, a mix of high intelligence and sharp humor combined with tragic depths of feeling, which seeped into his writing like an indelible stain.”
Though Wisniewski circles that sense of Algren over and over, she simply never manages to land it. It was also missing, for different reasons, from Bettina Drew’s biography, Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side, back in 1989. Algren deserves better. I’m waiting for Colin Asher to do him justice. His Algren biography is due out next year from Norton.
Postscript: Nov. 13 — I didn’t want to write this review. I know how much work it takes to do a biography, how much underpaid heart and soul goes into it. But I felt it was necessary, especially now that Blake Bailey has had his say in The New York Times Book Review. His essay, in the guise of a review, drips with contempt for Algren.
Echoing the notion of Algren’s worst critics from 50 years ago, without objection, that Algren is “a relic of so-called proletarian fiction,” Bailey claims, strangely, that Algren “was largely influenced by nothing less than the teachings of Christ”:
Algren’s heart went out to the lowest of humanity, to be sure, but his prose was a lot more lurid than anything found in the New Testament, often reading like the field notes of an oddly lyrical skid-row ethnologist.
Bailey is clever to use Wisniewski’s biography as the justification for his contempt. The “laudably objective empiricism” he claims for her book is itself an attack on Algren. He writes:
Wisniewski is astute about the relative merits of Algren’s work, and I was especially pleased when she remarked of the last novel published during his lifetime, “A Walk on the Wild Side,” that it was ‘more fun to read’ than the others.
Taking that as a putdown of Algren’s two most serious and ambitious novels, Never Come Morning and The Man with the Golden Arm, he adds:
“Ah,” I thought, “she gets it.” Which is to say: Algren had a fine ear for the nuances of Chicago Polonia dialect, and the felicities of his prose are many, and cumulative, but — well, getting through it all can be a slog.”
So his conclusion that “indeed Wisniewski’s hopes for his [Algren’s] reputation seem on the modest side” is too sadly true and not at all surprising.
Postscript: Nov. 21 — A further elaboration: Why I’m Waiting for Asher’s Algren
PPS: Nov. 29 — “Nelson Algren Live,” featuring Willem Dafoe, Don DeLillo, and Barry Gifford, will be screened Wednesday (Nov. 30) at The Metrograph on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The 73-minute flick, directed by Oscar Bucher, is being shown in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of Seven Stories Press, which has published new editions of eight Algren titles, including three of his major novels Never Come Morning, The Man with the Golden Arm, and The Devil’s Stocking, as well as his classic story collection The Neon Wilderness, his collection of fiction and reportage The Last Carousel, his travel writings Algren at Sea, and two titles that were never previously published, Entrapment and Other Writings, and Nonconformity: Writing on Writing. (The novel A Walk on the Wild Side, originally published by Farrar, Straus and Cudahy in 1956, is still in print in a subsequent edition from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.)
The screening will be followed by a discussion with Dafoe, DeLillo, Gifford, Bucher, and Seven Stories publisher Dan Simon, moderated by Colin Asher. “Nelson Algren Live” documents a staged reading by a group of writers and actors at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago on March 28, 2009, which would have been Algren’s 100th birthday, to celebrate his life and work with a text adapted from a play by Gifford and Simon.
Furthermore: Dec. 23 — The flick bowled me over, especially Willem Dafoe’s reading of a previously undiscovered, unpublished story of Algren’s called “The Lightless Room.” This video teaser is excerpted from his reading of the entire story. Dafoe, after the screening, recalled that it was virtually a cold reading. In other words, no rehearsal. He had been called upon at the last moment, three days earlier, to substitute for someone who had unexpectedly dropped out. “Algren Live” is technically superb, but it’s greatest virtue is that it captures the real Algren, and with the simplest of means.