He came into Manhattan by bus from Hackensack, which is the place in New Jersey where he lives and knows nobody, and nobody knows him, except the landlord and this little ten-year-old girl up the street who jumps up and down when she sees him and says, “You’re a writer, somebody told me you’re a writer.”
He took a room at the Mansfield Hotel on West Forty-fourth Street. The room costs twenty dollars a day. The bathroom is down the hall and there is no television in the room, for which he is happy. He used to stay at the Iroquois Hotel across the street, but late one night, when he wanted to take a bath, he found that the tub had no stopper. He went down to the Iroquois lobby and complained. “Tell it to City Hall,” a clerk said. He went upstairs and took a glass ashtray and put it upside down over the drain and then ran his bath. He got up in the morning and moved across the street to the Mansfield. Who knows how long ago it happened? The important thing is that he bad-mouths the Iroquois today, and he will bad-mouth the Iroquois until the day he dies or the hotel collapses.
His name is Nelson Algren and he wrote books called The Man With the Golden Arm and The Neon Wilderness and A Walk on the Wild Side. He is a poet who deals in realism. The Man With the Golden Arm in 1949 was the first book ever to mention the presence of heroin in the poor neighborhoods and moved Carl Sandburg to say that Algren’s characters “can linger in your mind with a strange midnight dignity.”
When you say today that Nelson Algren is a great American writer, there are not enough people, particularly young people, who have heard of the name. This is something that should not be. His books are in paperback and there can be no reason why they should not be read, for the rewards are so great. After the tenth car chase on television, after the eighty-fifth shooting, here is what awaits you if you pick up The Man With the Golden Arm and read how Nelson Algren started the first page of his book:
The captain never drank. Yet, toward nightfall in that smoke-colored season between Indian summer and December’s first true snow, he would sometimes feel half drunken. He would hang his coat neatly over the back of the chair in the leaden station house twilight, say he was beat from lack of sleep and lay his head across his arms upon the query-room desk.
Yet it wasn’t work that wearied him so and his sleep was harassed by more than smoke-colored rain. The city had filled him with the guilt of others; he was numbed by his charge sheet’s accusations. For twenty years, upon the same scarred desk, he had been recording larceny and arson, sodomy and simony, boosting, hijacking and shootings in sudden affray; blackmail and terrorism, incest and pauperism, embezzlement and horse theft, tampering and procuring, abduction and quackery, adultery and mackery. Till the finger of guilt, pointing so sternly for so long across the query-room blotter, had grown bored with it all at last and turned, capriciously, to touch the fibers of the dark gray muscle behind the captain’s light gray eyes. So that though by daylight he remained the pursuer, there had come nights, this windless first week of December, when he had dreamed he was being pursued.
“You owe us another one,” Algren was told when he was found on Forty-fourth Street, yesterday morning.
“I don’t owe anything,” Algren said. It was 8:00 A.M. and he was walking across the street to a coffee shop. His blue eyes, set in an old social worker’s face, were amused. He was dressed in a rumpled blue jacket and wine shirt, worn the night before and open at the neck to reveal the top of his T-shirt.
“The table in the coffee shop had not been cleared yet, and Algren was pleased to see that the change still was alongside a plate.
“We made fifty cents already,” he said.
“When was the last time you were in Chicago?” he was asked. Algren always was Chicago. You could imagine him nowhere else.
“A year ago,” he said. “Got in a brawl there. I won it. Sonofabitch there ran into an accident. I was the accident. He was standing over by the wall with a green beer bottle and I had this glass of brandy. Now, I can’t throw. But just as he was starting to throw the beer bottle, I threw the brandy glass. His beer bottle went wide. My brandy glass hit him right over the eye and he went down.
“Now, you don’t knock a man down with an empty brandy glass. I think, I just wonder, did I throw it so fast that the ice and brandy were still in the glass when it hit him? I threw so fast that it didn’t have a chance to spill out? I just wonder.”
“How long have you been around here?” he was asked.
“I came at the end of 1974 to Paterson. I had trouble with the landlady. She was the only Puerto Rican woman with a pacemaker in the United States. It made her batty. The pacemaker really was in her head. I wanted to get a phone put in. The only place the company guys could put the wires was the basement. Landlady wouldn’t let them in. The guys from the phone company were black and the Puerto Rican landlady was afraid of blacks. She was as afraid of them as the whites are, and the whites are terrified. I said to the guys from the phone company, ‘Fellas, you see what it is here.’ They laughed. They said, ‘Oh, yeah, we know.’
“Then the landlady heard I was in Paterson to write a book about Rubin Carter. She came in and said. ‘You move.’ I said, ‘I’ve got a lease.’ She said, ‘You got no lease.’ That’s how I got to Hackensack.”
Algren left Chicago in 1974, when a magazine paid him $1250 to write about Rubin Carter, who was in the midst of winning a new murder trial. The fee was a big one for Algren. He should be a wealthy man. Fifty years from now, he will be studied in schools as perhaps one-two-three in his time, and a student will wonder how this man lived with all his riches.
But Algren’s books came when Hollywood stole more casually than now, and when writers’ agents were not much of a contest for publishers. The magazine article grew into a nonfiction book about Carter, who lost and went back to prison. Carter’s name now produces fatigue to anybody seeing it in print.
“So why don’t you sit down and start a fiction book, use Carter as a basis, use anybody. Why “don’t you start an Algren novel?” I asked him yesterday.
He shifted in his seat. He has been bothered with this before.
“People say to me, ‘When are you going to give us the big one?’ I say, ‘When you start reading the little ones.’”
I said to him, repeating something several publishing people had told me the night before, “If you sit down and write one chapter of a novel, an Algren novel, and send it in, your agent could grab you so much money to finish it, nothing would matter anymore. There’s millions around for a writer like you.”
He shrugged. “I never chase a book,” he said. “If it ain’t there, it ain’t there.”
“What do you do with yourself?” he was asked.
“I’m up early, six, seven. Read a paper. Look at the race results. Then I don’t know what I do. Always something in the typewriter. A book review for Chicago, probably. I look at it and wonder if it ever gets done. At noon I go to the Hackensack YMCA Executive Health Club. I exercise with all the other executives. I come back to bed at one and I start reading. Once a month, I go over to the racetrack.”
“What do you read?” he was asked.
“I reread Dickens. You never can do that enough. Some of the other stuff. I had to review a book that has in it exactly what Fitzgerald was wearing and who was in the bar and what they had on the day Fitzgerald said to Hemingway, ‘The rich are different than us.’ And Hemingway said, ‘Yes, they have more money.’ Now what all that means some fifty years later is something I don’t know. What it meant the day they said it is something I don’t know, either.
“I read Gabriel Garcia Marquéz. Solitude is a “great book. Nothing around today to compare to it. He’s in a different sense of time than anybody else. And Autumn of the Patriarch reads like one sentence. He can shift from first to third person and you don’t even notice it.”
“What about you giving us a novel?” I asked him.
He got up to leave. He was going back to his twenty-dollar hotel room until noon, when he’d walk down the street to pick up his friend Studs Terkel, in from Chicago for the opening of his Broadway musical, Working. Nelson Algren was going to take Studs over to Gleason’s Gym, where Freddy Brown, the fight trainer, was going to show Algren a fighter he thought Nelson would like.
Nobody else saw Algren yesterday. Nobody was looking for him. In all of New York, only Freddy Brown seemed to understand that Nelson Algren is one of the great ones.”