Unlovely but Real

The life of Nelson Algren


“Don’t become a writer...it’s a terrible life…”

– Nelson Algren to young woman starting an MFA




More than 30 years ago, back in the fall of 1988 — possessed by literary fever after my first encounter with Winesburg, Ohio — I drove 370 miles from Baltimore into the Blue Ridge Mountains to visit the grave of Sherwood Anderson.

Amos Oz had the same reaction when, as a teenager on a kibbutz, he read Anderson’s landmark collection of connected stories, published 100 years ago this year.

“I had a Hungarian teacher at Kibbutz Hulda who never set foot in America but who told me to read 'Winesburg, Ohio' after it was translated into Hebrew,” said the late Israeli novelist in his memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness.

“She knew I was a secret poet and wanted me to write prose. I had thought the real world was outside — in Jerusalem or New York or Paris. 'Winesburg' showed me that the real world is everywhere, even in a small kibbutz...that all the secrets are the same — love, hatred, fear, loneliness, all the great and simple things of life and literature.''

The trip to Marion, Virginia (unnecessary yet somehow crucial), shut the door on my collapsing marriage; we had three kids under the age of 7, and my mother-in-law was about to have major surgery. But I had to go, arguing that it was an assignment (not a total lie; isn’t everything a writer does an assignment?). Once I’d arrived, I saw the assignment hijacked by a strange autodidact, perhaps the most colossal book man I’ve ever known.

His name was John Mason Rudolph Jr., and he loved booze, pills, babes, the track, Dostoevsky, The Crack-Up by Fitzgerald and, especially, Thomas Wolfe, whom, he liked to say, “unearthed the Earth.”

You know, a real man of letters.

“I was looking for the answer to my troubles so I decided to read every novel in the library that people said was great literature,” said the poly-troubled Rudolph as we drove to Anderson’s mountain retreat, a stone building named Ripshin. “And the only thing I learned is that they were all as nuts as me.”

Rudolph, who completed an unpublished, autobiographical novel called Rags of Time in a Baltimore flophouse not long before his death in 2005, could star in any number of stories by Nelson Algren, whom this essay concerns.

In a new and as-complete-as-yet-possible biography of Algren — Never a Lovely So Real by Colin Asher — we meet the likes of Rudolph (speaking the patois of Chi-Town, not Crabtown) as Algren befriends them.

“Nelson’s friends were his best source of material,” writes Asher, attributing a quote to a junkie drummer from Arkansas (not that one) that has entered the language. As Algren shadowed the man in an all-night search for a dealer (imagine that: having to search for a drug dealer), he finally told the guy he was tired and going home. To which the addict barked, “You don’t know what it’s like to have a monkey on your back.”

(The title of Algren’s 1956 novel, A Walk on the Wild Side — later a movie starring Jane Fonda — would also become cultural flypaper via a neo-doo-wop song by New York rocker Lou Reed.)

All trivia, like Algren’s love affair with Simone De Beauvoir, that distracts from the author’s long shelf of work.

For half a century, from the Great Depression through the first year of the Reagan administration, Algren walked the tightrope between making art for pennies and banging out journalism to remain reasonably solvent. He had some big paydays along the way, both with publishers and the poker table, as ballast. And blew a lot of dough just because he could. Easy come, baby, working-class writers wild.

Without Algren, much of the narrative that slept beneath the bridges of the American Dream (as it always has and always will) during the American Century would be lost.

In 1955, Algren took a bus from Manhattan to Baltimore to find a longtime pal named Jessie Blue, then living with his wife, Trixie (Trixie Blue; you can’t make it up!), “living in a rowhouse in a poor neighborhood. They were the guests of a couple named Blackie and Norma when Nelson arrived,” and Algren was welcomed warmly.

Blackie was an ex-pimp and Norma a former prostitute, according to a letter Algren wrote to Max Geismar, a critic and biographer of Mark Twain. Blackie liked to smack Norma around and often wore pink trousers on the street to bait people into mocking him so he could knock them down, too. As always, Algren watched, listened, and took notes, knowing he could knit something useful from them.

In those notes alone — cast to the winds and archives across the country — is enough material for a dozen more novels, his first love and the genre from which Algren stepped away in the last decades of his career in favor of quick money from magazines.

My old, irascible friend John Rudolph once traded me a cache of about 200 classic paperbacks in exchange for helping him make the rent at his subsidized apartment in Essex, Maryland. In 1976, he sold an interrupted run of the 18th- and 19th-century periodical Gentlemen’s Magazine at auction for $1,750, and once homed in on slave documents he believed “would have changed the entire history of this country.”

“But I got mixed up with this broad,” he said, “and it passed me by.”

Many believe that our lives, and thus the course of history, is changed most profoundly by artists — writers foremost among them; that it was not Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan who brought down the Soviet Union, but rock ‘n’ roll. I’m no wonk, but I’d like to think so.

The greatest changes in my lifetime were brought about by things like air-conditioning, the advent of which ended my Polish grandmother’s habit of sitting out on the sidewalk in a lawn chair on summer nights, talking with her East Baltimore lady friends, waiting for a breeze.

I have a grandiose idea — perhaps self-serving to an old newspaperman who learned to write on the City Desk before turning 21 — but one that would alter the future of the United States as surely as Algren’s most memorable character, Frankie Machine, dealt cards.

Imagine if every academic creative-writing program in the land were shuttered by midnight this All Hallow’s Eve.

Are they not mills turning out master’s degrees but only sometimes turning out writers; fiction factories training people how to teach others what no one seems to want anymore — fiction unbeholden to genre?

Where would our great writers come from then?

Nelson Algren, who spent time in a Texas jail as a young man for stealing a typewriter, forged his first published story from letters written home while bumming around the country hopping freight trains and looking for work. Titled, “So Help Me,” it was published in 1934 in Story magazine, where he shared space with William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston.

“It was a bold way to arrive,” writes biographer Asher, “and people noticed.”

They still notice, only in much smaller numbers. Every generation, it seems, produces an Algren champion, and Asher is ours.

Was it such a terrible life after all? It sure is fascinating to read about, especially by aspirants looking to make their own way in our post-literate world. Colin Asher has provided all the information needed — highly readable, thorough, and chronological — to decide for yourself.

Rafael Alvarez is the author of Basilio Boullosa Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown. He can be reached via orlo.leini@gmail.com.

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