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Nelson Algren's legacy ebbs

April 26, 2009|David L. Ulin | Ulin is book editor of The Times.

CHICAGO — The Steppenwolf Theatre feels like a womb. It's warm, dark, soporific, full of voices barely loud enough to be distinguished, a setting beyond time. Outside, the streets of Old Town are laced with spring afternoon snowflakes; on the South Side, at U.S. Cellular Field (formerly Comiskey Park), opening day has been postponed.

The fact that Comiskey is no longer called Comiskey is a sign of how Chicago has changed, and not for the better. But then, the old Comiskey had a date with the wrecking ball almost two decades ago. The new park -- bland, lifeless, another corporate sellout -- is the kind of ersatz place marketers and con men try to pass off as authentic in a world that no longer remembers what authentic means.

"We grew out of the beer-cork stage into lagging for ten-for-a-penny pictures of baseball players," Nelson Algren wrote about the real White Sox in "A Lot You Got to Holler," a story from his 1947 breakthrough book, "The Neon Wilderness." "Like the beer corks, some of these had a larger value than others: I remember trading an entire strip of ten to get just one of Joe Jackson. And a month later, when Jackson had been kicked out of organized baseball, I had to give one of him, one of Buck Weaver, and two Happy Felsches just to get one Ray Schalk -- who'd been on the original strip I'd traded for Shoeless Joe in the first place."

Algren would have turned 100 this year, and it's an open question as to whether he would have recognized this new Chicago, although the city seems intent on recognizing him. His face -- skeptical, wary, framed by a red hunting cap and the upturned collar of an overcoat -- peers out from the cover of the Chicago Reader, teasing to a previously unpublished piece of fiction called "Entrapment," taken from "Entrapment and Other Writings" (Seven Stories: 304 pp., $19.95 paper), a new book edited by Brooke Horvath and Dan Simon to mark Algren's centennial. En route to Steppenwolf, a cabbie offers a detour past Algren's old digs on Wabansia Avenue, in a working-class neighborhood turned hipster hangout, where the factories have been resurrected as lofts.

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Fans in high places

Then, there's the action at the theater. Arranged in a line across the stage are nine chairs, in which sits an unlikely array of people, beginning with Simon and "Wild at Heart" author Barry Gifford, and featuring novelists Russell Banks and Don DeLillo and actor Willem Dafoe. Together, they're rehearsing a bit of reader's theater called "Nelson Algren Live," which will be performed this night before a packed house, including Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, and former Life magazine photographer Art Shay, who took the most iconic shots of the author, black-and-whites of him playing poker or peering through barroom windows, pictures so gritty you can almost feel the dirt rise off the frame.

These photos, as much as anything, are responsible for Algren's image as "the poet of the Chicago slums," yet they also cast him in amber: a midcentury figure, smoking a cigar, eyebrows raised behind round glasses, turning over another card. Sixty years after winning the first National Book Award, for his 1949 novel of addiction, "The Man With the Golden Arm," Algren has become vestigial enough that discussions of a national celebration were scaled back after, as Augenbraum notes in an e-mail, "we concluded that though his writing continued to resonate, the number of his readers and his currency among the general reading public had diminished."

So what, exactly, is Algren's legacy? That's the question the Steppenwolf event means to raise. The show is built around a series of interviews he gave in the early 1960s to a writer named H.E.F. Donohue (later published as "Conversations With Nelson Algren"). The one-night-only affair seems appropriate, given Algren's state of cultural eclipse. Perhaps the most telling anecdote comes by way of the late Studs Terkel, the author's lifelong friend, who recalls going to see Billie Holiday with Algren in 1956, when Lady Day was getting near the end.

In Terkel's words: "Billie's voice was shot, though the gardenia in her hair was as fresh as usual. Ben Webster, for so long a big man on tenor, was backing her. He was having it rough, too. Yet they transcended. There were perhaps fifteen, twenty patrons in the house. At most. Awful sad. Still, when Lady sang 'Fine and Mellow,' you felt that way. And when she went into 'Willow, Weep for Me,' you wept. Something was still there, that something that distinguished an artist from a performer: the revealing of self. Here I be. Not for long, but here I be. In sensing her mortality, we sensed our own."

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An incredible run

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