Swans Commentary » swans.com June 15, 2009  



Captain Algren At The Tiller


by Peter Byrne


Book Reviews



Algren, Nelson: Algren At Sea, Notes From a Sea Diary & Who Lost an American? - The Travel Writings, Seven Stories Press, N.Y.C., 2009, ISBN-10: 1583228411, ISBN-13: 978-1-58322-841-8, 464 pages, $22.95


(Swans - June 15, 2009)   Nelson Algren, who would live till 1981, finished his career as a novelist in 1956 with A Walk On The Wild Side. He knew it and claimed he wanted it that way. At fifty-five in 1964, he told H.E.F. Donohue he wasn't "going all out" any more, which for him was the only way to write a serious novel, a "big book." "I don't believe this stuff I am doing...is literature. This is journalism." He was referring to Who Lost An American? and Notes from a Sea Diary: Hemingway all the way that Seven Stories Press, in its ongoing effort to put all of Algren back in print, has now combined in a single volume.

Since his membership in the Communist Party in the 1930s, Algren had kept away from any political commitment that called for joining or belonging. Nevertheless, in the early 1950s he spoke out for civil rights, supported progressive groups, and even co-chaired a Save the Rosenbergs Committee. In 1953, with McCarthyite anti-Communism raging, he was refused a passport. He was again refused a passport in 1956 and made the mistake of swearing he had never been a Communist. This left him open to a perjury charge if he appealed his case. By refraining from all political activity for the rest of the decade he was finally removed from the FBI Security Index and granted a temporary passport in 1960.

Who Lost an American? is dedicated to Simone de Beauvoir. Algren hadn't seen her for nine years before their 1960 reunion in Paris. Beauvoir's The Mandarins, though dedicated to Algren, had caused something of a breach. But it was a novel, and Algren could stomach having his private life aired under fictitious names. However, when Beauvoir's straight autobiography Force of Circumstance came out in America, he couldn't contain his anger. She had revealed for all to read that he hadn't been nearly so important in her life as Jean-Paul Sartre. Her lucidity wounded his ragged macho romanticism, and he replied, in Harper's Magazine and elsewhere, with a flow of crude sexist clichés.

In Who Lost An American? Algren leaves New York throwing a few goofy punches in his grievance brawl with literary rivals and useless lawyers. On shipboard he gets his facetious monologue going. It will serve as his main narrative voice throughout this travel book whose subtitle might be Foreigners Are Funny-bizarre. He meets literary celebrities in Ireland, but their edges are blurred by drink. In England he's on to his principal interest, women for sale, the WWII whores he knew and his new acquaintances. When the monologue morphs into situations the reader cheers up as he has something more solid to bite into.

Paris is different. Algren was there in 1949 and met Sartre's circle. His liaison with Beauvoir went on between times in America. Now in 1960 he's faced with old friends he can hardly laugh off as grotesques. His tone turns serious as he insists that Beauvoir alone of the circle has grown in stature during the decade. In this view, tailored to please her, Sartre, his rival in love, is still the great humanitarian thinker. ("Unprepossessing in both appearance and dress, he was ugly as well.") Algren even drops his clowning and like any student takes a stab at summing up Existentialism. It's disconcerting to find him quoting a chunk of Beauvoir's 1947 views on America (America Day By Day). Her thoughts, reflecting war-depleted France and Sartre's politics at the time, would seem to clash with Algren's disdain for abstractions. But he could feel they bolstered his outsider's stance back home. Algren is far from frank in this Paris chapter. Not only will he soon be heaping ridicule on Beauvoir, but here he makes fun of the American literary expatriates who spend their time closeted among themselves. During his six months stay, Beauvoir actually told him repeatedly that he himself was too much in this ghetto.

"Spain is the spiritual center of humanity." In Spain, which Algren loved, Franco not withstanding, he courts laughter again with his monologue. As usual he has his eye out for prostitutes, but he also assures us -- it's part of his brand -- that he feels at home with the people who live in caves outside Almeria and with the gypsies of Seville. Crete and the city of Istanbul are reduced to joking banter about the Ancient Greeks and the strange behavior of Muslims.

In the final hundred pages, Algren, back in Chicago, rolls out his poetic prose and wipes the smile off his face. He scuttles through his childhood in the shadow of Dreiser and Sandburg. Then we have a look at the present stage of corruption in which middle-class businessmen play a dominant role. The picture of the city is fuller and richer than that offered in Algren's more famous little book of over-distilled prose, Chicago, City On The Make. His curiosity about prostitution is again well exercised. There is a sustained attack, pages and pages, on a thriving city institution of those years, Hugh Hefner's Playboy Key Club. Algren saw a great difference between executives going to pull a Bunny Girl's tail and a writer who traveled the world peeking into whorehouses. It's hard not to smile when we hear him assault the birdbrain Hefner with a quotation from the theologian Karl Barth.


* * * * *


Sea Diary came out of a three-month trip to the Far East on the Malaysia Mail. It was the freighter's sixty-first trip and "she labored like a mare too tightly reined; too old to whip, too mean to whinny." The voyage cost Algren twelve hundred dollars and, sailing from Seattle, touched down in seven countries. He brought along an essay he was writing on Hemingway and critical appraisals of the recently deceased author. Sea Diary reports on life aboard and visits ashore, mixing the sordid and the fanciful. There are set pieces, some mere anecdotes, others all but short stories. Praise for Hemingway and attacks on his critics bob up throughout. Algren links the whole artfully. He may not be a "big book" novelist any more, but he still knows how to use a novelist's tools.

The diarist is full of opinions. The reader begins to wonder if Algren's insistence that writers keep close to people who never read books didn't stem from more than a desire for the common touch. His interlocutors during these three months abroad not only do no reading but haven't the mental furnishings to dissent from any of the ideas he lays out. Roustabout shipmates, vomit-gagged drunks, whores of all nations, and pimps with a strictly dollars-and-cents outlook were not going to fend off Algren's onslaught on Dwight Macdonald's aesthetics or Saul Bellow's novels.

Once his passport was obtained, Algren's views were those you might run into in a Greenwich Village bar or on the University of Chicago campus. In his lectures he always spoke out against the war in Vietnam. In Chicago he decried Mayor Richard J. Daley's political machine and when abroad objected to American cultural influence and great-power hegemony. In the abstract he would always take the part of the humble and the dispossessed. But the people he actually fixed his attention on tended to be so degraded as to lack any saving grace, which, it seems, is precisely what interested Algren in them. This ambiguity pervades his work from first to last. Sea Diary at times resembles a visit to a freak show with the geeks outdoing one another in naked self-interest. Humbleness and want are not what comes to mind in his first meeting in Korea with:

An aging slicky-boy with a mug divided between a beetling scowl and a smile, sweet as apple pandowdy, under a frightwig of black-wire hair, [...] he looks like he's been creeping under a fence and part of the wire has stuck to his skull. One side of his face has been paralyzed and the other side survives only by that smile.

But Algren has already set the tone with his first choice of a quote from Hemingway for our delectation. It concerns a wounded hyena that "while running circles madly, snapping and tearing at himself until he pulls his own intestines out, and then stands there jerking them out and eating them with relish."

A friend, Stephen Deutch, felt uneasy about Algren's habit of thinking everything funny. Bettina Drew, his biographer, tells us that a book like Algren's Last Carousel had impact, despite its flaws, "because his view of the world was so original." It may well be that this originality results from Algren's finding unfunny things a barrel of laughs. Deutch seems to have been of the more widespread opinion amongst the human race that many things aren't funny at all. Just as Algren in these years was no longer "going all out" as a novelist, his lifelong fascination with squalor seems to have tipped over into cynicism.

For all his heterosexual poetic riffs, Algren had never been at home with women. Although Sea Diary could have been subtitled, Some Whores I Have Known, the Malaysian Mail as pictured by Algren was an all-male affair. (He never refers to the one other paying passenger aboard, a Chinese woman.) The voyage was a delinquent boys escape from distaff constraints with stopovers for sexual servicing. It was the end for him of close and meaningful ties with women. He soon celebrated his flight from them, Algren-fashion, by a marriage to a younger woman, Betty Ann Jones. It would last fifteen months.

Bombay was the highpoint of Algren's brothel tour. The rest served only as a warm-up. In the Port of Pusan, Korea, for $10 he spent the night with a stoned adolescent, Po-Tin, in her dirt-floor shack. He wasn't pleased when she gave him only black instant coffee for breakfast. At Hong Kong in Kowloon's Ho-Phong Road, he held Aline in his lap. "Her teeth had gone bad." She was a "hipless, breastless, stenciled, penciled, pseudo-Caucasian heroin-head" highly recommended by her pimp. But Bombay boasted the Street of a Hundred Cages. The women were kept behind bars and spit betel juice at prospective customers. It was Valhalla for a bottom-feeding tourist.

Algren's literary treatment of the caged women is strange and revealing. He doesn't bother with their individuality but simply sets down the bare facts of how they ended up in a cage. Meaningful reticence or empathy burnout? The reader remains unsure of what he's supposed to feel and only familiarity with Algren's outlook furnishes a hint. He's supposed to feel that human life is pretty much a pile of dung and that only a cynic is sharp-minded enough to step around it. This doesn't rule out the occasional humanitarian sigh on Algren's part. But little Nelson clearly had a shock many years before when he learnt that there was unpleasantness out there beyond his mother's arms. He won't let us forget it.

Algren's defense of Hemingway -- for that's what it is, Hemingway versus the critics -- begins with a look back to a 1955 visit to the maestro in Cuba. They talked of boxers and the wild animals of Africa in what was all but a Hemingway parody, complete with good Scotch. The next day Algren sat down to a big Christmas dinner where Hemingway radiated wordless equilibrium over the laden table. We are not told whether the Buddha calm was alcohol induced.

The first quote chosen by Algren from a critic of Hemingway is Dwight Macdonald's delicious parody from Against the American Grain. Algren's severity here makes us wonder if the man who found the world so funny hadn't in fact a faulty sense of humor. For the way Macdonald uses the writer's own voice and style to send him up is hilarious. Algren sternly insists that the critic has confused Hemingway with his myth as "a reporter of the bull-ring, the fight-ring, warfare, fishing and safari expeditions, but no more." But Macdonald's point is that it was Hemingway himself in his Papa-persona who designed the myth and then stepped into it as into a pair of hunter's boots.

Against this view Algren insists that the real Hemingway was a soldier who became a great writer by looking death in the face on the battlefield of the First World War. For Algren, artists like Hemingway live dangerously. Critics with their desk and podium jobs play it safe. Algren, moreover, so revels in this idea of danger as a measuring rod that he applies it not only to critics but to his own dread competition in the fiction-writing game: "Arthur Miller, John Hersey, Saul Bellow" -- all stand back from involvement with their subjects. They work according to ready drawn maps, whereas Hemingway "drives a collision course, lights out, along an untraveled way."

The reader here shouldn't miss his cue. He's meant to see Algren beside Hemingway in that speeding vehicle. By his defense of Hemingway, Algren has enrolled in his battalion The Oak Parker diced with death in WWI, the Spanish Civil War, the invasion of France in 1944, and out on the Spanish Main when he wasn't deep in the African bush. Militarily the Chicago man operated mainly in the Marseilles theater of the black market. But he lost many a rough hand at poker, removed his glasses in view of action time after time in Division Street taverns, and had a good rummage through the dirty washing of some of the most disgusting brothels going. His Sea Diary recounts a drunken brawl in the home of a Calcutta whore and her mother of the same calling. His two shipmates, especially the one with a kitchen knife, put his life at risk. According to Bettina Drew, he asked afterwards, faux-naif and proud, why this didn't happen to Saul Bellow or Alfred Kazin?

In the end, Algren's defense of Hemingway and himself as writers is that, thanks to living on the edge, they achieve poetry: "Lacking a sense of poetry all creative work becomes false." An assertion so subjective is hard to argue with. (For instance, Algren finds Bellow's Herzog unpoetic.) It's easier to go along with Algren when he exalts storytelling over criticism: "What is more absurd than to be so grown-up that the Meaning of Man concerns you more than men and women? Since when does abstracting life from the poetry of living entitle a hollow hack to the honorable name of thinker?"


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Published June 15, 2009