Review Of The Texas Stories Of Nelson Algren
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/11/09
Reading The Texas Stories Of Nelson Algren, a 1995 book from The University Of Texas Press, and edited and introduced by Bettina Drew, was an odd experience because a) the quality of the tales was very hit and miss and b) the book was not really a book, at all, just a collection of random stories that Algren wrote over the course of several decades, and gathered together by Drew and other editors from the University, long after his death, fourteen years prior, to try and capitalize on his name; and a good portion of the eleven tales within are not truly short stories; merely chapters taken from a first novel called Somebody In Boots; and it shows.
That stated, the man best known for his gritty urban realistic fiction, mostly set in Chicago, like The Man With The Golden Arm, A Walk On The Wild Side, and The Neon Wilderness, was very good when he was good, and too verbose in the rest of the stories. That stated, even the tales within the book that fail, are better failures than the dreck that is churned out by publishers today. The reason is that Algren’s stories were all character-driven. This means that the tales were not simply an idea for an event that was expanded upon, in which the persons described within could be utterly interchangeable. Rather, the tales etch individuals with realistic traits into the reader’s minds, and the actions that unfold within a tale flow naturally, in a psychological and emotional way, from those characteristics the writer has imbued his characters with. Ask yourself how often you’ve read a work of fiction and been confronted with the question, ‘Why did he do that?’, or been bored to tears with the dumbest possible action trope to propel a tale? This is when a story can only proceed if the character(s) do something so dumb as to make the tale unrealistic.
With that set of guidelines in mind, the book breaks down into three categories of stories: those that work, those that don’t, and those that, as stated, that are merely examples of prose that could work if there was a real denouement posited. The third category contains the novel sections-cum-stories If You Must Use Profanity, A Place To Lie Down, and Thundermug. Of the three, the best is the first tale, which provides a good portrait of the frustrations of a young hobo. The latter two tales have some of the same characters as the first one, but the characterizations and settings are not as indelible, and their ‘endings’ are not as strong. Interestingly, these selections from Algren’s first novel constitute the middle the tales of the book, while the first four tales are amongst the first stories Algren ever published, and the last four tales were written decades after- from the 1950s-1970s, when Algren not actively publishing fiction. And, somewhat predictably, the final four tales are the least effective- too long, and bogging down in details and a lack of focus on characterization.
The first four tales are Lest The Traplock Click, So Help Me, Kewpie Doll, and A Holiday In Texas. The four later tales are El Presidente De Méjico, Depend On Aunt Elly, After The Buffalo: Bonnie And Clyde, and The Last Carousel. Lest The Traplock Click follows a Depression Era hobo who gets locked into a freezer car of a train, and manages to escape, and return home to write about it. In his agon, he claims, ‘Thirst has made of my throat an open wound, and suddenly I am conscious that there is nothing but a dry cackling issuing forth. And hunger is a great gray rat within, gnawing, ever gnawing, gnawing.’ Needless to say, passages like this abound in the tale and the book, and show why Algren was such a memorable and powerful writer, for his original metaphors. So Help Me, which won a 1935 O. Henry Award, is told from the perspective of a hobo who has become a murder suspect, who tries to plead his case to a local DA for leniency, subtly shifting the blame for the murder of a Jew on a boxcar to an associate. The very framing of the tale makes it interesting, and its execution is equal to the task. The same follows for Kewpie Doll, a tale that deals with a tragedy- a boisterous and impoverished crowd looting a train, in winter, for its coal, ends with the accidental death by decapitation of a little girl; yet is notable for how its ending wholly undermines the emotional impact of that event. A Holiday In Texas is a proletariat tale set in Texas, but with roots in the Socialist-leaning fiction of Depression writers like Irwin Shaw. Like the other tales, it has numerous high moments.
The final four tales, by contrast, while all having moments of good writing, are simply constructed less tightly, are longer, and far too nebulous. Their momentary graces are lost in the flab and indifference of their aims and achievements. Of the four, only After The Buffalo: Bonnie And Clyde and The Last Carousel really stick out. The former for its bizarre fetishism over the noted criminal duo and sociopathic killers, seemingly for a sympathetic political affinity, and the latter because it is the longest tale- near novella length, and almost maudlin in its evocation of a dead place- the Texas of Algren’s youth, and ends with a scene of a Ferris wheel in a dust storm that is powerful, yet also predictable and sappy, two things the first four tales in the book scrupulously avoid. The Last Carousel was published in Playboy in 1972, and took second prize for the best story that magazine published that year.
Again, however, the flaws of such a work are not major in comparison to the garbage routinely published today. And the reason for that is obvious, for even in his lesser tales, Algren had a sharp eye for observation- a thing that natural storytellers have, for they learn to incorporate observations as ways to determine character, whereas MFA trained writers always look into themselves, not out into the world. Thus, because they are almost always empty vessels- philosophically and intellectually, they have nothing to build characters with but their own emptiness framed by banalities. This is why most modern fiction is populated by stick figures, stereotypes, and clichés.
By contrast, Algren not only has a great eye, but a great wit and a sense of the grotesque leavened by that eye and wit- something lesser writers like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor lacked. In some ways, Algren was more akin to a more urbane Sherwood Anderson than any other writer he’s usually compared to, as well as a more gut-punching Irwin Shaw. Yet, whatever writer he is compared to, his fiction is, if not always of the first order, of a high second or better order. The Texas Stories Of Nelson Algren may not be a real ‘book’ of tales that mesh, due to a commonality of subject matter, time, nor- despite its title, place, but it is a worthy piece of American fictive history from a writer whose reputation, since his death, over a quarter century ago, truly needs and deserves reclamation from the waste bin of history.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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