A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren
10 January, 2011
Perdido Street, in the steaming heat, felt like a basement valet shop with both irons working. … Yet the very heat that enervates men infects women with restlessness and the city was full of lonesome monsters. Sidestreet solitaries who couldn’t get drunk, seeking to lose their loneliness without sacrificing their solitude. Dull boys whose whole joy expired in one piggish grunt. Anything could happen to a woman available to anyone. Boredom of their beds and terror of their street divided each.
They had died of uselessness one by one, yet lived on behind veritable prairie fires of wishes, hoping for something to happen that had never happened before: the siren screaming toward the crossing smashup, the gasp of the man with the knife in his side, the suicide leap for no reason at all. Yet behind such fires sat working cross words while prying saltwater taffy from between their teeth: passion and boredom divided each.
December’s choice for my book group The Riverside Readers was mine and I chose Nelson Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side. I confess my copy was pristine and had been sitting on my shelves unread for the past 15 years when I bought it from what used to be Dillons on Gower Street while still a student. I was immersed in the autobiographies of Simone de Beauvoir while trying to complete my astrophysics degree and I had just read about Beauvoir’s American lover Algren. So naturally I wanted to read his books and A Walk on the Wild Side was a title so famous, I had no choice but to buy it. Shame it took me so long to actually read it. One of the reasons I chose it for the book group was that I hardly come across Algren in the blogs I read and he seemed to have gone out of fashion. But he is considered one of the finest American writers of the 20th century and I wanted to know why.
A Walk on the Wild Side follows in the footsteps of 16 year old, illiterate Dove Linkhorn as he leaves Texas and his preacher father and drunk brother behind to better himself. In the first part, we meet Dove as he struggles to earn a few dollars working for and in turn being taught how to read by the much older and devout Terasina, the owner of the local chili parlour. Theirs is a short and bittersweet romance quickly ruined by pride, misunderstanding and violence, and Dove leaves Texas to find a better life for himself. On his journey to New Orleans, Dove encounters a whole slew of characters, the forgotten, the impoverished and the starving all trying to survive, including Kitty, a young, street smart orphan trying to pass herself off as a boy. Dove later falls in with a couple of bums as he learns to make some money as a salesman. But somehow, no matter how much he makes, he always seems to drift back to the lower echelons of society where the drugs and booze are plenty but there’s never enough money.
In New Orleans he meets the pimps and prostitutes who seem to define our image of 1930s New Orleans. Dove is once again sucked into this world forming tentative alliances and is recruited as a stud to deflower ‘virgins’, a job in which he excels. He runs off with Hallie, the only prostitute who hasn’t surrendered completely but returns when she leaves him. And when he returns, he is confronted by Hallie’s lover, lonely and angry Legless Schmidt whose dreams of being the strongest man in America was shattered by a drunken fall near a moving train, and is beaten almost to death. And we come back full circle as Dove returns once more to his hometown, a broken man, but looking for the one person he hurt but cannot forget.
Algren’s novel really surprised me. Considering the subject matter, I was expecting a gritty, dark and depressing book all about the lower dregs of society, especially during the Depression when the numbers swelled exponentially. But Algren’s prose is magical because he tells his tale in a poetic and very beautiful language. So although you are aware of the seedy nature of New Orleans, the bitter, empty lives of the poor and the sordid exploitation of women, you can’t but believe in the hopes that these characters have and applaud how they keep on going even though their lives are so hard. That’s a pretty mean feat to accomplish. If this book was written now, it would probably be too graphic and would leave you with a sour taste in your mouth.
Algren’s work is a broad canvas reminiscent in some parts of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (eg. tumbleweeds and railways). And there are echoes of the Beat Generation and his time in Paris throughout this novel. Yet A Walk on the Wild Side is too romantic a view of what is essentially a very dark and dirty side of life. Algren also has too large a cast of characters, where some disappear and reappear without any explanation, which I found quite confusing. However, there are bits that are sheer brilliance. I loved the beginning where we see the love story between Dove and Terasina crack. I also loved reading about Legless Schmidt and proud Hallie’s affair which had a huge impact on Dove’s life. In some ways, Dove is a bumbling innocent yet shrewd enough to survive the harsh life he is dealt. And the novel ends in a full circle with, what I felt, was hope.
The thing that struck me most about A Walk on the Wild Side aside from Algren’s poetic prose is how funny it is. There are many memorable episodes but the one that struck me most was when Dove finds temporary employment in a condom factory.
This was also the place where Cupid’s Arrows came warm off the forge and Ticklish Tessies lounged about. The craze in Laughing Maggies had almost died but Ding-Dong Darlings had a promising future. Happy Hannahs roomed here; Barney Googles were having their noses pinched by clothes-pins on a wire line. Here Gross moved Love’s Fancies by the gross; and a reddish dust lay over everything. For the O-Daddy was not the only creation of the hand and heart and brain of this dishonored genius. It was only his masterpiece.
One interesting point that came up in our book group discussion was the notable lack of jazz and the involvement of the afro-carribean community. Apart from two notable scenes, Algren’s tale mainly centres around the white, poverty-stricken community. Considering it is set in the 1930s, I am assuming this is due to the prevalent segregation endemic during this era. There is one comic scene where Dove, desperate to relieve himself, is attempting to go to the toilet but is driven away because he isn’t of the right hue. Although Algren uses many words which probably won’t make it through the editorial process today, it didn’t make uncomfortable reading because of the period it was set it. And there is just that something about Algren’s prose that softens the blow (especially the rape scene at the beginning which, if you weren’t concentrating, you could miss in the blink of an eye.) To me, Algren’s writing style circles the locus, never quite explicitly stating what is happening, yet you are made aware of each momentous event that occurs.
It’s not a perfect tale, but it’s a poetic one. And it would sound amazing if read aloud. It’s not the smoothest read and is very uneven in parts, but it’s much easier and more enjoyable than you would expect. Algren is more famous for A Man With the Golden Arm which I hope to read one day. But not just yet. Have you read anything by Algren? Would you want to?