Tag Archives: american writers

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . The Man With the Golden Arm, by Nelson Algren

“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.

Nelson Algren, 1956

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 Sure it’s fairly long and full of poetic language, and may be a little outdated in style and the way he weaves characters’ dreams into it.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.

Song titles, gothic novels, and a famous director who lives in your neighborhood.

Now I know where the title of Watercolor Paintings’ song “Shower of Stones” came from (see prior post, review of their album When You Move). I had gotten a Shirley Jackson novel at the library. Four pages into The Haunting of Hill House, there it was: a mysterious “shower of stones” that solves the mystery of the title of Watercolor Paintings’ dark and ominous rock classic. Interesting. Then I continued reading the book.

The book is part of a series of horror literature by Penguin Books. It has a very cool, scary cover and black-tipped pages, and a brilliant erudite introduction by the series editor Guillermo Del Toro who just won Best Director and Best Picture for The Shape of Water, and who signed the piece at Thousand Oaks, Ca.

ShirleyJack.jpg

The Haunting of Hill House is a story about exactly that, except the title might be more accurate if the “of” were a “by”. Anyway, Shirley Jackson wrote with the dreaminess and imagination of an adolescent girl and the wit and drollery of a sophisticate. She had a special soul. This story is perfectly gothic, in that the setting and many of the key characters have that strange broken quality. What make the book so fascinating to read are Jackson’s little nuances. I’m not even sure what nuances are but whatever they are, this book’s got ‘em. They will make you smile as you shudder.

Stephen Crane’s legacy

“Stop that, Jim, d’yeh hear? Leave yer sister alone on the street. It’s like I can never beat any sense into yer damned wooden head.”

That short passage from Stephen Crane’s story Maggie, a Girl of the Streets may seem trivial, at first glance. But after reading Maggie, that bit of banal dialogue proved to be a perfect window into the icy irony and social criticism that Crane put into that classic story, and into his body of work as a whole. There is no question that Crane broke new literary ground in two important ways, at least if we consider this side of the Atlantic.

His prose, in the words of Hamlin Garland, was “astonishing”. He wrote in a style more modern and, I think, more poetic, than any earlier or contemporary American prose writer. He almost certainly inspired the next generation or two of story writers, and they were an innovative bunch indeed.

The other quality that Crane pioneered was the gritty realism of his settings and subjects. He told it like it was, long before that expression became a cliché. He had the most amazing ear for vernacular speech. Add to that a sharp understanding of human nature. The characters and their dialogue are so lifelike that one can’t help but enter their world and identify with their problems.

Despite illness and death at 28, Crane left us a sizable collection of novels and stories. We all read The Red Badge of Courage in high school. I remember nothing about it, sadly, and did not read other Stephen Crane works until now. That is my loss. Besides Maggie, I have now read many of his collected short stories. The Monster was powerful and ahead of its time in social consciousness, and The Open Boat was impossible to put down. In a very few short but prolific years, Stephen Crane made himself into one of the best American writers, of any era.