As Chicago's memory of Nelson Algren dims, he and his vision of this place seem to be taking over my mind.
I'm not entirely pleased about this development.
My first connection with Algren was a sad story my mother told me when I was old enough, about an important novelist I hadn't studied in school, who once came to dinner. This was sometime in the early 1960s, when my mother was married to her University of Michigan English professor. Anyway, something went wrong that night and, in front of the honored guest from Chicago, her husband threw the dinner she had cooked on the kitchen floor.
I arrived in Chicago with a curiosity about Algren, which I tried to satisfy by interviewing a number of his remaining friends and front-row fans. I found that those who knew him weren't much better at helping me understand him than people who didn't. Here's the sum total of what I've surmised from my investigation: Algren didn't drink as much as it's reputed; gambling was his real vice. He once called Mike Royko a "visceral" writer and the insecure columnist took that as meaning he was stupid. And Algren was terrifically funny when he wasn't relentlessly bitter about being unappreciated in Chicago and spit out by Hollywood.
Neither city had any use for Algren's dark realism. And sometimes I don't, either.
But I've lived for five years just outside the West Town neighborhood that should be called Algren's Corner, because it contains so much of Algren's action. When I think I've seen everything there is to see from Ashland and Chicago and Milwaukee, from Fry and Pearson and Potomac streets, I wander into the alleys and old taverns, searching for what it was that Algren saw that lead him to put so many of his literary eggs in this homely basket.
Then I go home and read the short-story collections like Neon Wilderness and the novels like The Man With the Golden Arm, to make absolutely sure this is indeed the neighborhood Algren was writing about.
Lately, my neighborhood access guide has been Never Come Morning. "They had been born two months apart on the same street," he writes about his young, Polish 1930s protagonists Bruno Bicek and Steffi R., "had played Charley Cross the Water and Fox in the Box on one leg, a thousand times down Noble Street. Had saved potatoes together in the corner fireplug and had hidden maps there too, for treasure hunting. Had kneeled on winter mornings in the same pew at St. Bonifacius. He had swung her on the swings at Eckert Park ...."
I'm not sure why he calls Boniface "Bonifacius," but this is the neighborhood all right.
But are these the people?
"His life was a ceaseless series of lusts," Algren writes about the teenaged Bruno, "for tobacco so good he could eat it like meat; for meat, for coffee, for bread, for sleep, for whisky, for women, for dice games and ball games and personal triumphs in public places. Day and night, one or all of these rode him, and was never fully satisfied even for a while; they could no more be satisfied than they could be evaded."
And to young Steffi, forced into prostitution, "the world was a curtained brothel."
The streets below were so dark, and the lights inside so bright, that nothing of the streets could be recalled in her mind, night or day. She ceased to go down to the pavement at all except for early Sunday Mass at St. John Cantius. The world was a street one never went down to. The world was a wall, like a sealed-up room. ... Like an inside room in some exclusive madhouse. The city itself was a sealed-up room; the city itself was a madhouse. ...
Night after night she heard the iron rocking of the bells of St. John Cantius. Each night they came nearer. Till the roar of the Loop was only a troubled whimper beneath the rocking of the bells. "Everybody lives in the same big room," she would tell herself as they rocked. "But nobody's speakin' to anyone else 'n nobody got a key."
Everybody was alone, trapped in the same vast beer flat forever; making the same endless plans for escape, repeating the same false gossip; like convicts living in the same cell for years together. All were in on the same charge, and the charge was a bum rap for all of them. Everyone was in on bum rap; not one would be paroled.
"God has forgotten us all," Steffi R. told herself aloud, "He has even forgotten our names."
In the larger sense, in these troubled times, yes, you could say these are the people, too.
And they will be speakin' to one another March 28 at the "Nelson-Tennial"--the 100th anniversary of Algren's birth. They're celebrating as they do every year, with what my friend and co-organizer Hugh Iglarsh calls with a laugh, "the last post-Beatnik happening in America."
The evening is a literary dog's breakfast-by-design, the final program determined on the afternoon of the event itself. There'll be some never-seen photographs by the original Algren stalker, Art Shay. Algren-related performances and scholarship (his translator into Nepalese will be in the house!). They'll have some Algren-inspired performances. And there'll be some utterly ill-fitting insanity (what would Algren say about a performance artist named Sid Yiddish?). The whole circus is dedicated to the late Studs Terkel, and Studs' son Dan will be there.
I told Hugh I may miss this year's show on account of I've got a niece in town, with her boyfriend who has never seen Chicago.
They're from Hollywood, I added.
"Bring 'em along," he said with an impish lilt.
"I might," I said. "And I might not."