But when John Banville makes a “soft machine” reference to Burroughs in the conclusion of his excellent review of John Gray’s “bleak yet bracing new book,” The Soul of the Marionette, you know that Burroughs’s literary reputation has achieved unexpected if not unheard of inroads among sophisticated mainstream critics.
Meanwhile, you have to wonder about the blindspot for Nelson Algren on this side of the pond. The most recent proof of that turns up in Sam Tanenhaus’s review of the first volume of the newly published The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964, by Zachary Leader. Tanenhaus writes:
Really? Has Tanenhaus never heard of Algren? Has he never heard Algren’s distinctive “voice” in two major novels of mid-20th-century American literature, The Man With the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side, both of which put a panoramic exclamation point as well as flesh and blood on the spirit of Twain, Mencken, and Dreiser? Has he never heard the distinctive “voice” of Algren’s great pre-World War II novel of the Chicago slums, Never Come Morning, which takes Dreiser’s protest to the profound depths of streets and neighborhoods that Bellow never plumbed?
Bellow and J. D. Salinger, born four years apart, reintroduced “voice” into American fiction, reviving the iconoclastic spirit of Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken. But while Salinger’s outlook was locked in the cell of the precocious teenager, Bellow achieved a panoramic social vision that subtly reworked the passionate protest of his favorite Chicago novelist, Theodore Dreiser.
If that were not egregious enough, how about the flagrant blindspot in Martin Amis’s review of Bellow’s new collection of nonfiction, There Is Simply Too Much to Think About. Amis, who now lives in Brooklyn and is the most Americanized of Brits in his longtime admiration for Bellow, writes of him: “[Y]ou wonder — what other highbrow writer, or indeed lowbrow writer, has such a reflexive grasp of the street, the machine, the law courts, the rackets?” How about Nelson Algren, Mr. Amis?
Postscript: May 4, 2015 — Louis Menand makes more sense in his review in The New Yorker than Tanenhaus and Amis combined.
PPS: March 28, 2022 — Colin Asher’s biography of Algren, Never a Lovely So Real, makes the most sense of all.