But Never a Lovely So Real


Colin Asher in The Believer:

Nelson Algren was the son of a no-luck working stiff and the grandson of a religious zealot turned grifter, and he was a type of loser we can’t stomach in this country. Algren made his living as a writer for forty years, occasionally to great acclaim. At the height of his career, wealth, leisure, and the lasting respect of his peers were on offer, but Algren shrugged at those prospects and kept going his own way. For Algren, the decision was as much a question of constitution as it was of rational choice, and he paid for it dearly. America has always been able to countenance beggars, short-con men, and nine-to-fivers who just can’t get ahead, but we’ve never known what to do with the type of person who could have been really big but chose not to make the concessions required.

Algren wrote eleven books in his lifetime: one polemical, amateurish, and overwritten; five brilliant; one bitter, satirical, and unfocused; and four very good; more or less in that order. [1] From the publication of his first book, in 1935, until his death, in 1981, every word Algren wrote was guided by the belief that writing can be literature only if intended as a challenge to authority. He didn’t compromise that position when Hollywood called, or the FBI, or Joseph McCarthy, junior senator from Wisconsin, or even for the sake of his own sanity after he decided that his life’s work had been in vain. Which may be why all of his books were out of print when he died, alone in the bathroom of a $375-a-month Long Island rental, at the age of seventy-two. Only a few friends, no family, and a single black-clad fan were present at his funeral to hear Joe Pintauro, a young writer of short acquaintance, read seven lines of Algren’s poetry as a pressboard coffin was lowered into the ground:

Again that hour when taxies start deadheading home
Before the trolley-buses start to run
And snow dreams in a lace of mist drift down
When from asylum, barrack, cell and cheap hotel
All those whose lives were lived by someone else
Come once again with palms outstretched to claim
What rightly never was their own