Nelson Algren. Author of The Man With the Golden Arm, A Walk on the Wild Side, Somebody in Boots, The Neon Wilderness, The Last Carousel and Chicago: City on the Make
Sometimes I feel alone when I derive inspiration from Nelson Algren. I feel grateful, even relieved to have learned about this event. Nelson Algren has been my literary hero since I was a teenager. I love that there’s an Algren “hotline” phone number.
In July 1964—I was 8 years old—my father announced, in stentorian voice, to me and my two brothers: “Boys—a Great Writer is coming to stay with us.” So I wondered what a Great Writer would look like, how he might talk and dress, and how old you had to be to become such a person. It seemed like a statue was coming, some figure upon a horse.
It was Nelson Algren, of course, who my father, 34 at the time, looked upon no differently than he would have Hemingway or Fitzgerald. But my dad was friends with Algren, who’d written a couple of very good reviews of his first two books.
So one day, Nelson Algren arrived by boat to the summer house we rented in Fair Harbor on Fire Island, a thin slip of beach between Great South Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. For reference, this was the summer that A Hard Day’s Night opened; it was also known as the Long Hot Summer of 1964 in the civil rights movement.
Algren was a salty middle-aged gent who carried a suitcase in one hand and an electric typewriter case in the other. Electric typewriters were new, and every morning throughout the next week, he was up at the crack of dawn, crackling at the keys of this futuristic typewriter. So he seemed like a guy at the cutting edge of technology. Little did I know. My father, a generation younger, had an old Corona.
Algren went apeshit over our elderly nanny, Mrs. Sullivan (the “Mrs. O’Leary” character in my new book, Black Cracker). She would break into a put-on Irish brogue to his delight. For years afterward, whenever Algren called my father and Mrs. Sullivan answered the phone, he’d chat with Mrs. Sullivan for an hour. Mario Puzo also spent a lot of time chatting up Mrs. Sullivan when she answered the phone. She was delighted that great writers were so taken with her blue-collar charm, and kept their personally inscribed books by her bedside.
Another other thing I recall from that week with Nelson in the house: He advised us that the pot handles be turned inward on the stove, rather than sticking out where they could be knocked over. Simple wisdom from Nelson Algren, but something my family hadn’t considered. He drank a little. My parents were crazy about him, but I think he spent more quality time gabbing with Mrs. Sullivan.
Algren greatly approved of a few younger writers, like Terry Southern and my Dad, Bruce Jay Friedman. In print, he said he admired Bruce Jay because he “didn’t know what he was doing” and he was “dangerous.” Calling a writer dangerous is the ultimate compliment, at least in my family. He wanted Bruce Jay to adapt Never Come Morning for the stage, and this was before my dad had ever written a play.
In the 1960s, all kinds of anti-establishment, dangerous ideas took hold in the culture, and millions of people listened and jumped aboard. Not like now. Now, there is no underground, no anti-establishment, or if there is, nobody knows about it. America is a corporatocracy, a corporate-dominated culture, with MBA degrees, corporate architecture, corporate entertainment, and millions of unquestioning kids in lockstep.
And that is why Nelson Algren remains so precious. He is not just a writer, but a Guardian Literary Angel, a Symbol, a counterweight to the corporatocracy. In his last years, he emphasized this, and I quote: “Big Business Kills.” Well, maybe we need standardization and assembly lines to build automobiles, but the sphere of this domination seems so powerful and out-of-whack, it throws off the balance of life. “Big Business Kills.” Those words echo in every bank bailout, every Enron and Bernie Madoff scandal that rapes a million people, every soulless concrete and glass skyscraper that uglifies the skylines of American cities.
Unlike in the past few centuries, serious writers—unless they are writers of computer games—are relegated to the bottom of the culture. Novelists are among the few citizens who actually have something to say. But they can’t even command the audience of real estate developers—who are really destroyers, not developers. CEOs are today’s rock stars.
Since the year that Algren died, 1981, we have become an Ayn Rand country, not a Nelson Algren nation. Imagine how different things might be if Ronald Reagan’s favorite writer had been Nelson Algren—instead of Ayn Rand.
Toward the end of Nelson’s life, he told my dad that “no one is interested in me.” Irwin Shaw told my dad the same thing. I myself didn’t have enough clout, when Algren was still alive, to get a magazine that would allow me to interview him.
Instead, it took me at least eight years to write a book called Tales of Times Square. Eight years is the amount of time Algren said it took him to write a book. I later read one of Nelson’s last interviews in the 1970s, where he said if he were young now, he would be writing about and living in Times Square. In fact, several chapters of his last book, The Devil’s Stocking, took place there. So with 50,000 writers living in New York, and me being the only one who bothered to write about Times Square, I felt like I had received a posthumous endorsement from Nelson Algren—my hero.
He also wrote a piece in which he was the victim of a “dry hustle” scam in a Times Square bar. I imagined him walking around Times Square like Don Quixote. This wizened street wizard. But he was hit with a $30 bar tab—which is like $75 today—after he okayed a drink for the B-girl on the adjacent barstool. Refusing to pay, Algren called their bluff. The 250-pound bouncer told him, “Pops, you come around here again, I’m going to get another old man to whip your ass.”
And now, I’ll play a song of mine called “Thanksgiving at McDonald’s in Times Square,” in his honor.
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© 2011 Josh Alan Friedman
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