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Pre-War Tough Guy From Chicago : NELSON ALGREN A Life on the Wild Side by Bettina Drew (G. P. Putnam's Sons: $27.95; 416 pp.)

December 17, 1989|Clancy Sigal | Sigal, a journalist and author of "Going Away" and "Zone of the Interior," teaches at the USC School of Journalism

Nice people didn't like Nelson Algren. The Chicago-bred author of "The Man With the Golden Arm," "A Walk on the Wild Side" and a number of immortal short stories about America's dispossessed behaved too much like his fictional characters for comfort.

What can you do about a major writer who--this fine biography tells us--liked the poor, did his fieldwork in low-rent bars and "walked and talked with a sort of pre-war style, tough but not mean, when by now it should have been the other way around"? Or who believed that "literature is made upon any occasion when a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with humanity"?

Algren, who passionately craved success, wasn't willing to buy it at any price. The result was that, still at his peak, he became a "non-person" in American literature, a Nelson Who? everywhere except in Europe, where readers idolized him.

Early in his abused childhood, Algren grasped the gut-connection between winners and cheaters. He preferred honest crooks to the respectably corrupt, and he didn't go out of his way to conceal his feelings. "A p.r. guy he wasn't," one of his friends is quoted in Bettina Drew's sympathetic but level-headed biography.

Incorruptibly honest but naively convinced nobody could outsmart him, Algren was easy pickings for on-the-con Hollywood producers (like Otto Preminger, who did the film version of Algren's "The Man With The Golden Arm") and whores with hearts of lead. Algren was like J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield with his impossibly high standards for adults. Disillusionment was in the cards, and Algren--a compulsive gambler--played poker with his life like a man possessed of honesty like a fever.

Algren's sense of kinship between his own and other people's pain was formed in the Great Depression. Jewish working-class in origin, Nelson Algren Abraham (his real name) was an ordinary boy of the Chicago streets with an extraordinary view of his own possibilities. He was viciously knocked about by his German non-Jewish mother Goldie, who took out on him her rage at marrying a simple garage mechanic who couldn't even add up the bills nobody paid.

Nelson's dad was a loser's loser. Trapped, Nelson went upwardly mobile in two seemingly contradictory directions: to college, and into the lower depths of "pool halls, bowling alleys, tenement houses" and brothels of Chicago's northwest side. "Even at 17," his biographer writes, "he seemed to know his way around the underworld without fear."

Like many "wild boys of the road," Algren hoboed all over America, ending up in a Texas jail for stealing . . . a typewriter, what else? With his eyes, ears and a notebook, he soaked up a Depression-era country of back streets and shadowy alleys "where relationships meant nothing, where money was more important than life, and life was so cheap as to be valueless . . . (a) world of outcast people with its own customs and values." The horror fascinated him. The repressed violence beneath the smooth skin excited his creative lust.

Algren, this boxcar sociologist, instinctively understood, from his own family cruelties, how America was governed. If the fix was in--and it always was--there were only two classes: wardens and prisoners, powerful and powerless. Like so many writers of his period, he sided unequivocally with the scum of the earth.

It was normal to be a left-wing writer in the '30s--in Chicago, his best literary friend, Richard Wright, was a Communist, and James T. Farrell a Trotskyist. What sat Algren apart was that he refused, all through his fat years, to abandon either his friends or his principles when America was offering a bounty on leftists.

In 1949, Algren's "The Man With The Golden Arm" was an instant smash. Suddenly he became world-famous. Even in Chicago, where his previous novel "Never Come Morning" was removed from public-library shelves at the order of a grafting mayor, he was appointed temporary hero, mainly because he was making money for the first time. He also became gossip-worthy as "Lewis Brogan," the American heir of Simone de Beauvoir's best-selling novel "La Mandarine." Beauvoir, who'd fallen in love with Algren and his dry, perverse humor--he showed her a police lineup and the electric chair on their first date--called him "my beloved husband." But her long-time liaison with Jean-Paul Sartre took precedence, which hurt Algren. Although endowed with a "European" sensibility, Algren never caught on that Beauvoir's idea of a "contingent love" simply meant high-class husband-swapping.

A chronic loser at the track and poker table, Algren also was suicidally slow to grasp changes in literary and political fashion in an America growing scared and suburbanized in the '50s. The FBI, which kept an active file on Algren, denied him a passport. Despite strong recommendations from Ernest Hemingway and Carl Sandburg, he was refused a Guggenheim.

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