“I could never work out whether we were to view religion as a life-insurance policy or a life sentence.”
“The great, secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one. Guilt that lay crouched behind every billboard which gave each man his commandments.”
Book? . . . The Man With the Golden Arm, by Nelson Algren
What kind? . . . Novel
Be more specific . . . Literary fiction, realism, social issues, urban, slum fiction, anti-establishment, muckraking
About what? . . . Chicago, post-WWII, poor working class Polish neighborhood. A back-room poker dealer named Frankie Machine. Crooked cops, tough times. And brown stuff that nowadays we call Opioids.
Significance? . . . Some of the sharpest, smartest street-vernacular dialogue ever. How he did it I’ll never know. Characters are developed as well as you could ever ask for. Story gives you goosebumps, if you really think about it. Whitman-like eloquence, especially his use of similes comparing the characters’ inner thoughts and feelings with their surroundings. A great Chicago book, right up there with The Jungle, Sister Carrie, Native Son, and Saul Bellow’s stuff which I really haven’t read much yet.
So should I read it or what? . . . Hey, you’re not puttin’ that rap on me. Sure it’s fairly long and full of poetic language, and may be a little outdated in style and the way he weaves characters’ dreams into it. But Nelson Algren was a great writer and led an interesting life himself. Maybe his life and his books are a chance you don’t want to miss out on. What kind of gambler are you, when the chips are down?
You got anything else to add? . . . Well, it’s not easy to find his books. They don’t seem to be very common in libraries. Online, they’re expensive, even used ones. Probably mostly out-of-print. He was once very well-known, but then was sort of forgotten by time. Making a slow comeback, I think. That’s a good bet.
The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye.
We are pawns and puppets. We are pawns of economic forces, we are puppets of misery and want. In his groundbreaking novel Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser writes about American capitalism and what it does to its subject citizens. We are pawns and puppets, we make choices but our choices are determined by capitalism and the steel grip it has upon our shoulders. We have basic urges that control us, we want what we see that others have, we want what we admire, what we think we need. We want things we cannot have, and once we obtain them they no longer matter to us. We worship idols, we are impressionable as lambs.
Dramatizing the power that money, or want of money, exerts over us, Dreiser’s novel, published at the dawn of the 20th Century, was one of the early American novels written from a working class perspective and focused upon the class struggle. Following in his footsteps were books like Jews Without Money by Mike Gold, A World to Win by Jack Conroy, Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell, and the works of Steinbeck and John Dos Passos.
The story that Dreiser employs to dramatize his political theme is a love triangle—a young woman named Carrie and two established gentlemen. This sounds conventional enough in many ways but from Dreiser’s angle the love affairs are seen as economic more than romantic. They illustrate how the class struggle shapes our most intimate feelings, usually without our being aware. Dreiser takes us on a rags to riches and riches to rags journey. The bare plot sounds like melodrama, but it’s actually realism. The narration gives us in tiny detail all the circumstances motivating our three lovers, and even some of the minor characters. And, among those motivators, money is paramount.
Some of Dreiser’s prose may sound a bit stiff to our ears, and his characters’ frequent streams-of-consciousness tend to flow for many paragraphs. But his dialogue contains the rich, quirky vernacular of the times, and helps to counterbalance the above imperfections. There is great power in Sister Carrie, and its relevance as a working class novel is no less obvious today than in Dreiser’s own time.
In social situations, I often see myself as the last planet in our solar system. Like the theoretical Planet X, I revolve around the periphery, I take longer than anyone else to get around, and, even if I’m part of their system, no one else knows for certain whether I exist.
It takes three things to make a good memoir: interesting life experiences, deep insight (see above excerpt), and the ability to narrate with eloquence and honesty. In They Only Eat Their Husbands (a reference to a certain species of spider), Cara Lopez Lee gives us all three ingredients of great memoir.
Her early life, marked by parental neglect, abuse and abandonment, was one that few individuals could come through unscathed. In a sense, the memoir had to be written, if for no other reason then for the cathartic relief of getting all that hurt from childhood out and onto a printed page. But Cara Lopez Lee writes her story with such insight, eloquence and honesty that the finished product is a work of art, as well as a brilliant statement about life and love. There is humor in her writing (note the title), there is keen imagery. And ultimately this personal narrative, by an accomplished world-traveling journalist, author and editor, gives us an overriding truth. It’s the truth we need to know about confronting emotional pain and building strength of character upon it. And then getting to the part of life that brings satisfaction and self-acceptance.
“What the Chronics are—or most of us—are machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired, flaws born in, or flaws beat in over so many years of the guy running head-on into solid things that by the time the hospital found him he was bleeding rust in some vacant lot.”
I was sitting in the backyard reading the closing chapter of a book. I sat under our dying apple tree where many flowers flourish and hummingbirds buzz right past your head. I looked up between paragraphs and there was a little bunny looking directly at me, not seven feet away. It was looking at me like it wanted to be friends but didn’t know how to start the conversation without sounding awkward. Neither did I. Before I could say something warm and endearing, it turned tail and scampered. The book I was reading was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I don’t know if there’s any significance. Somehow it seemed like the right book to be reading at that moment.
And I hadn’t decided to finally read the book this year because of little rabbits or because I was only waiting for the point at which our political system turns into a national madhouse. No, sometimes I just like to save good things for later. Like a reward, sort of, for being patient.
So what can one say about Cuckoo’s Nest that hasn’t been said already, except “Yup, it’s a great novel. You guys were right.” And I already knew they were right, from having seen the movie when it first screened back in 1975. Jack Nicholson gave a performance like nothing else I’ve ever seen. But most of the credit goes to Ken Kesey. He created R.P. McMurphy, and if there’s a more unforgettable character in all of American literature, let him or her swagger forward. Or, to use his own words, “I’ll eat my hat.”
Another unforgettable character is the narrator. Chief Bromden, tormented by memories, fears and visions, plays a small and silent part in the plot, but is otherwise a keen fly on the wall of the mental ward. The Chief is especially obsessed with McMurphy and the social whirlwind he stirs up in the ward. The Chief’s own mental state, already vulnerable, is caught up in the whirlwind. His impressions, his sometimes streaming consciousness, are racked by machine imagery and terror of something he calls the Combine—a huge greedy corporate/police apparatus that seems to be his personal metaphor for oppression of the working class. Kesey, only twenty-six when he published Cuckoo’s Nest, came straight from a working class environment himself.
Politically correct Kesey is not: women and numerous minorities don’t come out looking too good in this novel. But Kesey isn’t asking you to judge them in a vacuum. He wants you to see everyone, all their cruelty, the pettiness, the weakness, as products of the Combine. And he wants you to see Randle Patrick McMurphy, his fearless individualism and his rowdy zest for life, as the last, best hope for shutting the ugly thing down once and for all.
In case I wasn’t clear before about how I really feel about this book: If you believe there’s an American novel that soars any higher or morally overshadows Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest, it better be something by Steinbeck.
“She drowsed and wakened. Surely someone would find them. Was it better to be shot than to watch her child starve? In the cold, she held him close, and he slept and woke through the night, sucking at her dry breasts.”
In her new story collection Trip Wires, Sandra Hunter has an uncanny ability to get inside the heads of ordinary people caught in the widely-scattered wars that have defined, tragically, the beginning decades of this millennium. These are the ones who can get out and the ones who can’t. These are ordinary people who, in desperation to survive, do extraordinary things.
Their stories are disturbing. With harrowing realism Hunter shows us their poverty, their scars, their journeys, their nightmares, their courage. And sometimes their humanity. The above excerpt comes from the story “Borderland”. That story is a full-force punch to the gut, depicting a young mother fleeing a nameless war in a lifeless land. But the young mother discovers human kindness in places and proportions that no one could imagine.
These stories are not for the faint of heart, and it is natural for us to avoid emotional “trip wires” that unleash the shocks and horrors of war. But the suffering is real and, lying just beneath the surface of our world, we can’t avoid it forever. Maybe, with the insights of authors like Sandra Hunter, we can learn why we need to urgently defuse those senseless conflicts that have booby trapped our present and maybe our entire future.