Like many of the other stories from The Neon Wilderness (1946), “A Bottle of Milk for Mother” is essentially a “slice of life,” a story that is short on external action, focusing instead on the protagonist’s internal action, in this case the realization that he is incapable of acting. The title of the volume of Algren’s short stories stresses the ironic incongruity between neon modernity and old-fashioned wilderness: There are no contemporary heroes. As in Algren’s other works, irony abounds in this story, particularly in terms of the “lone wolf” motif (which is particularly appropriate to a “wilderness”). After Bruno mentions that he was acting on his own, practicing “lone-wolf stuff,” that term is used, even exploited, by the newspaper reporter, who envisions using the term ironically to comment on Bruno’s paralysis: “The Lone Wolf of Potomac Street waited miserably.” Certainly there is irony at the end of the story when the penitent sinner turns out to be a criminal who is looking for his hat.
Algren uses a mixture of realism and impressionism to convey setting, characters, and theme. While he uses “realistic” dialogue, which effectively captures the street vernacular, with its bad grammar, slang, and colloquial expressions, Algren is hardly objective in his selection of details and his metaphors. Kozak is characterized by his “St. Bernard mouth,” which renders him less human, and on another occasion his manner is compared to “the false friendliness of the insurance man urging a fleeced customer toward the door.” The reporter is never identified by name; in fact, he is not a person but a “raccoon coat” adjusting his glasses. The images of the setting that Algren presents are equally depressing. When Bruno looks out the window, he sees a January sun “glowing sullenly,” almost as if it were commenting on the actions within the room. When Bruno hears “outside” sounds, the Chicago Avenue streetcar seems to screech “as though a cat were caught beneath its back wheels.” There certainly are ties between the cat and Bruno, for both face death, but there are also ties between the streetcar wheels and the proverbial “wheels of justice.” When the simile is followed by the shadows “within shadows” in the cell, the reader is left with images that suggest inevitable death at the hands of a mechanistic, impersonal machine.