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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

Worst of all, many critics, themselves ex-radicals, blasted Algren because of his bias toward the destitute and oppressed. Norman Podhoretz couldn't fathom why Algren "finds bums so much more interesting and stirring than other people." Leslie Fiedler called him a "museum piece." Literary academia loathed Algren as one of the "destroyers of the social order." The "conservatism of the 'fifties," Drew notes, was making him "seem more like a freak than a serious novelist."

Nelson Algren became a pawn in the larger dispute "that exiled the whole urban-sociological tradition from the hall of fame of American letters," Drew quotes one of Algren's few academic defenders. Perhaps most important, the writer's human base dissolved under his feet. The Poles and other Chicago ethnics Algren doted on moved elsewhere, leaving him stranded in the old neighborhood now full of Latin-Americans whose language he was simply getting too old to learn. A way of life--at every level--was being lost.

Marginalized, unable to get an advance for a new novel, he fought back by moving to New Jersey to research a book about black boxer Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, jailed for a double murder Algren believed he didn't commit. But life, or women, or the critics had beat some of the stuffing out of him. He never won The Big One again.

Algren died in 1974. "I speak only for those who leaped or fell," he once said in a poem, "losers being the only ones left with something to say and no one to say it." One example: Because of his experience in America's drug world, out of which he drew The Golden Arm's "Frankie Machine," Algren decided that "narcotics constituted a medical problem, not a police matter."

I'd like to think that Algren, who loved putting on sober folks with his loud, checked jackets and wide, Day-Glo ties--the uniform of "a short-odds bettor at the two-dollar window of a downstate Midwest racetrack"--would finally be acceptable today.

But with those clothes, that manner, these views, I wonder.

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