With its depictions of the downtrodden prostitutes, bootleggers, and hustlers of Perdido Street in the old French Quarter of 1930s New Orleans, A Walk in the Wild Side has found a place in the imaginations of all generations since it first appeared. As Algren admitted, the book "wasn't written until long after it had been walked . . . I found my way to the streets on the other side of the Southern Pacific station, where the big jukes were singing something called 'Walking the Wild Side of Life.' I've stayed pretty much on that side of the curb ever since." Perhaps the author's own words describe this classic work best: "The book asks why lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives. Why men who have suffered at the hands of other men are the natural believers in humanity, while those whose part has been simply to acquire, to take all and give nothing, are the most contemptuous of mankind."
The book asks why lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives. Why men who have suffered at the hands of other men are the natural believers in humanity, while those whose part has been simply to acquire, to take all and give nothing, are the most contemptuous of mankind."
A Walk on the Wild Side is a story about the lost and lonely men and women of Perdido Street in 1930s New Orleans. It is a stark and often poignant portrayal of the lives of society's down and out, losers and has-beens, lived out in the streets, cheap hotels, dingy bars, and brothels of this city. Dove Linkhorn, 16-years old, son of an itinerant preacher, is recently arrived, with big dreams of easy money and a good life. Dove is willing to work hard, and he is willing to try his hand at anything. He knew that his youth and his muscles are his strength, but his illiteracy was a liability. So he does what he could to learn to read. Among pimps, whores, con-men and suchlike, he got his education, and it didn't end in reading. Dove gets in and out of scrapes, and gets to understand many things. Life was tough, people were hard-bitten, disillusioned, and there was plenty to be angry about. Little acts of compassion, of sympathy, of loyalty, however, shine through their shared misery, and once in a while, a courageous soul emerges who reminds them of their pride of themselves, and unspoken dreams.
Algren does not idealize poverty or glorify these miserable characters, none does extraordinary things, neither does anybody overcome their miserable existence, but they are more real and the more human for it. The story is a series of small dramas, and Algren sometimes tends toward the melodramatic. But Algren's writing is wonderful and has a melancholic ring to it, he uses lyrics of songs to good effect in setting the mood. In his words, we almost hear the sound of music and songs which happen to be playing or being sung, almost always heard through the open door as Dove walks by. Where he came from, it was always a church door. Here in New Orleans, it would be a jukebox.
A good read, and a vivid reminder that the misery portrayed in this novel is a situation that is again being felt in many parts of the US and Europe. Algren was not describing a world very different from what we are faced with these days -- high unemployment, migration, aggressive door-to-door marketing, more and more homeless, the amount of sales posters we see on walls or notices pushed under our doors -- they also characterized Dove's New Orleans then. It is sobering to see the similarities.
Published in 1956 a year before Jack Kerouac’s On the Road it covers the same territory in that it is a rejection of the illusion of ‘the American Dream’; it looks at the underbelly of America, those trapped in poverty, in crime, in prostitution in one of the big cities, all through the eyes of a young man with plenty of youthful energy who is not afraid to get his hands dirty to get what he wants. Unlike the Beat generation of the 1950’s, whose protagonists were looking for kicks, Algren’s book is set in the early 1930’s, the years that heralded the great depression, when people were scrambling to keep alive. Dove Linkhorn is the main character and we pick him up in Arroyo a town in Texas, his father scratches a living emptying cess pools and spends his free time, when not drinking, as an itinerant preacher on the steps of the court house. He sees no reason to be sending Dove to school and Dove gains his education by hanging out with the hobo’s near the railroad tracks and listening to their stories. The illiterate 16 year old gets a job at the local cantina and has a brief affair with the Mexican Lady owner, who kicks him out after catching him stealing from the cash register. After adventures with a female runaway he hops a freight train to N’wawlins (New Orleans) and arrives in town barefoot in blue jeans with just some change in his pocket. He gets a bed in a run down flop with two older men; Fort and Luke and learns how to make a dollar through conniving semi-criminal enterprises. Door to door selling leads him to Oliver Finnerty’s brothel where he gets his big break as a stud breaking in young girls to a life of prostitution. Styling himself as Big Stingaree he moves into the brothel, a police raid lands him in jail and when he gets out, his quest to learn to read leads him to an affair with one of the girls in the brothel and when he absconds with her, he leaves himself open to recriminations.
Algren reworked older material to put together A Walk on the Wild Side, but you wouldn’t know this from reading the novel as it flows logically forward, but with hind sight you can pick out the various pieces that make up the novel. Young Dove growing up in Arroyo, his life as a young hobo, his work for a couple manufacturing condoms in their bungalow home, his six months in jail, but the largest chunk of the book is based in Oliver Finnerty’s brothel and Dock Dockery’s speakeasy that provides the cover. Algren spends 40 odd pages describing the characters and their way of life before Dove arrives at it’s door. Kerouac and the Beats tended to give impressions of the seamy side of life usually through first hand impressions in a new cool style of writing. Algren is more intent in rubbing our noses in it. He wants us to be moved by what we see and he is not averse to step in under the guise of one of his characters to tell us just what is wrong with the system, he stops short of preaching against the evils of capitalism and the differences between the haves and the have nots, but he leaves the reader no doubt as to where he stands. Algren seems to me to be a link between the more melodramatic style of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and the cooler clipped style of the Beats, but what makes Algren special is his own way of writing, which is a good marriage of style and content. An example from an early section of the book when young Dove is drawn to the hobos out by the railroad tracks:
“Dove felt the uneasy guilt go round them like the perfumed glove; it too had made the circle of homeless men.
Their home was ten thousand water towers, their home was any tin-can circle. Their home was down all lawless deeps where buffalo coloured box cars make their last stand in the West.
He saw their night fires burn and burn against the homeless heart, and felt he himself had gone West. That it had come to nothing then, and yet that he would go again.
Someone had done some cheating all right.”
Repetition, alliteration and word sound are as important as content, along with well used idioms that together give unique atmosphere to the scene, but there is more; there is social comment running all through this paragraph ending with “Someone had done some cheating all right” There are other stunning paragraphs and purple patches of writing throughout the novel, but Algren never loses sight of the tawdry meanness of some of his characters and their society. There is plenty of dialogue which Algren uses to highlight the social world of his character, they speak in homilies, they exaggerate, however they don’t often swear and sometimes the word play is a little too clever.
The dollar is king in Algren’s America; almost the first thing that characters say to each other when meeting is ‘Making any Money’. The richest, strongest and most unscrupulous are the ones that survive the hard times and they bear down on the weakest, their is little room for sentiment, but there is room for love and this can make people act out of character although coercion and force is the most usual method of operation. Algren’s world is an unedifying sight, but the way he manages to wrap it up in some inventive and radiant writing makes this a novel well worth reading. Five stars from me
By Nelson Algren
Review by Benn Bell
I just finished reading Nelson Algren’s, “A Walk on the Wild Side,” and to quote Ernest Hemingway, “Mr. Algren, boy, you are good.” It’s been years since I’ve stuck to a novel the way I did this one. After I got past about page eighty, I couldn’t put it down. Algren details the lives of hookers, hustlers and hangers on walking the wild streets of New Orleans in 1930’s.
There is more colorful language and colorful characters put down on a page that can be found in the hue of a rainbow. The book asks the question why lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost, and why men who have suffered at the hands of other men are some of the most natural believers in humanity while those who have only sought to acquire, to take and take, and never give anything back are the most contemptuous of mankind.
The book, about economic hard time in the 1930’s bears an eerie resemblance to the hard times of 2011. In the mixed up time of the 1930’s, “ …the number of jobless rose to 8 million, two hundred thousand steelworkers took a 15% wage cut, the D.A.R. demanded that unemployed aliens be deported, a crisis in unemployment relief was imminent, and Huey Long said it was time to redistribute the wealth. The New York City Chamber of Commerce said that Prohibition was failing, the Secretary of Labor pointed out that business was resisting further decline. Self reliance for the penniless and government aid to those who already had more than they could use, was the plan. It was between prostitution and prohibition that the ancient color line was finally breached. Negro bellboys had gained a virtual monopoly on the delivery of illicit alcohol and had found white male guest either wanted a woman with the bottle or a bottle with the woman.”
The book is full of charming advice such as the following: “Blow wise to this, friend, never play cards with a man named Doc, never eat at a place called Mom’s, never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own. Life is hard by the yard. But you don’t to do it by the yard. By the inch, it’s a cinch.”
Nelsen Algren wrote this novel in the 1950’s, long after it was walked. He says he found his way to the streets on the other side of the Southern Pacific Station where the jukes were playing, “Walking the Wild Side of Life.” He lived pretty much on that side most of his life. As I read this book, I couldn’t help but be reminded that this was book was written by the man whose heart was broken by his French lover, Simone de Beauvoir. He is feature prominently in her novel, “The Mandarins.”
Last week I was on a train that got stuck outside of Bristol by the floods for several hours, we moved up and down the
tracks and stopped before moving up and down the tracks again. Eventually we returned to Taunton and were dumped at the station. Outside the promised coaches were absent, it was bucketing down rain and no one from the rail company in charge. When coaches did arrive in dribs and drabs 300 people ran as if fleeing a doomed city. No thoughts given to parents with babes in arms, to elderly passengers struggling with heavy cases. I bet you that we were all good people, who pay our taxes…
In Walk on the Wild Side, Nelson Algren asks “why lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives. Why men who have suffered at the hands of other men are the natural believers in humanity, while those whose part has been simply to acquire, to take all and give nothing, are the most contemptuous of mankind."
The book was written at the on set of the cold war in the 1950’s but is set in the Deep south of the early 1930’s. Algren himself went into popular and critical decline soon after in part due to the abuses of McCarthyism and in part to his own hard drinking, gambling and drug taking.
The story starts with Dove a Southern trailer trash illiterate 16 year old in the Mexican-Texas border. His grandfather is traveling preacher…described by Dove as the type that makes you want to throw your Bible away. He is barefoot, and in country yokel jeans. At the end he is in the height of fashion albeit bedraggled due to prison sentence for being drunk and disorderly. Along the way we see the ins and outs of hustling, working in a peepshow, making and selling rubbers etc. We meet the women he loves or has sex with and one who keeps her humanity enough perhaps to love him. This unfolds as he jumps trains to New Orleans and then tries to make a living.
The narrative can at time feel like a series of short stories threaded together but its both naturalistic and funny. See Dove as an innocent abroad who walks where others fear to tread and so sails through danger that passes over his head. It also has lots of little passages of songs scatters throughout the book. Walk on the Wild Side by Lou Reed is based on the book and was going to be part of a musical of the book- want to see that if it ever happens!
It has to be said it’s a flawed masterpiece but still better then many other writers’ best work so give it a try and get a sense if you could believe in humanity if crushed at the bottom of the pile.
The novel describes the hard life of the working people in the Texas and New Orleans area in the depression.
Dove travels from one encounter to another, stealing rides on the railroads, attempting to be recruited by the Marines, to getting a non union job at the docks and more.
We never get into his thoughts and don't connect the way we do Steinbeck's characters in "The Grapes of Wrath."
We follow Dove's attempts and see him progress to what it takes to earn a living in the tough times.
This is a critique on the unfairness of the wealth distribution in this country which continues to this day. A time of “Self-reliance for the penniless and government aid for those who already had more than they could use..."
Algren’s style in this book is fabulous, sometimes sing-song rhyme, sometimes slow and wistful, with a southern drawl. “To this lopsided shambles owned by this unlicensed ghost, this speakeasy spook who had been alive once but died in the crash and was now only haunting the thirties, came trudging, some uphill and some down, all those who could not admit that the money was spent, the dream was over; the magic done. They still wore the clothes they wore before 1929 and no one knew when they might buy clothes again.”
Sometimes Dove isn’t even aware how miserable his situation is. After all, it’s all he knows.
“…when he saw men encircling someone or something down the street he hurried there as fast as his butter-colored shoes could make steps…
…a little round man with something glistening in his hand. Dove elbowed in to see what glistened so nicely.
A cawfee pot.
Shor a purty old pot.
“Wreneger’s the name,” the little round man was telling his crew, “but you can call me plain old ‘Smiley”…”
Little old red ’n green cawfee pot. Well I be dawg. Bet you make right good cawfee.
“The idea aint to see how many doors you can rap of a morning-THAT aint sellin’…”
I had me a cawfee pot like you, cawfee pot, I’d know where to get the chicory for you.
”Heed the housewife’s woes, boys. Give ear to her trials and little cares. Make her joys your joys, her tears your tears…sooner or later she’s going to ask ‘Young man, whatever is that contraption in your hand?’”
“Look like a cawfee pot to me,” Dove helped the man out.
“Thank you, Red. You work with me…”
A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE examines exceptionally well the existence of some of the truly poor during the early 1930’s and I recommend it highly.