An angry indictment of social injustice, The Devil’s Stocking is in the direct tradition of the Naturalistic novel. Nelson Algren’s protagonist, Ruby Calhoun, bears more than a slight resemblance to Frank Norris’ McTeague and Theodore Dreiser’s Carrie Meeber, and, like Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925) and many other Naturalistic novels, The Devil’s Stocking is based on a true story: the widely publicized murder trial of middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Like Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths, Algren’s Ruby Calhoun is a victim of the society in which he struggles for survival. Both men, through initiative and grit, begin to beat the odds and make something of themselves, and both are tricked by circumstances and slapped down harder than ever. The lesson—among others, for these are complex novels—is that some people never can be victorious over the situation in which chance has placed them, because the social structure will not let them win.
Algren was significantly influenced by Dreiser, Norris, Stephen Crane, and Upton Sinclair, but he was also deeply affected by the generation of writers who achieved prominence during his youth: the leftist, socially conscious writers of the Great Depression. Algren may have been liberated stylistically by Ernest Hemingway, but his content reflected the times in which he lived. Algren learned that the studied objectivity of the journalistic style actually heightened the emotional impact of his angry fiction. At the same time, there is a strong romantic streak running through his work. Although, like many leftist writers of the 1930’s, he considered “pretty” writing to be aligned with political conservatism, he could not suppress his rough lyricism.
Nelson Algren was a major—possibly great—writer who did not always write well. Just as Dreiser, Norris, or Sinclair Lewis could startle the most sympathetic reader with an awkwardness of phrase, an infelicity of diction, so Algren was capable of writing very clumsy prose. Stylistic nuance, however, was not essential to Algren’s literary purpose. Compassion and narrative drive propel his stories and engage his readers. It is impossible for an open-minded reader not to become deeply involved in the story that Algren is telling; Algren makes readers care about his characters and their ultimate fate. Almost against one’s better judgment, one suffers along with Algren’s seedy, victimized, often raunchy characters, wanting life to work out fairly for them even while disapproving of much of their conduct, and one becomes angry at the forces that oppress these grimy pawns of social injustice.
All of these strengths are evident in the posthumously published novel The Devil’s Stocking, a fitting conclusion to Algren’s long career. The book begins with and often reverts to a retrospective structure, with chracters remembering and commenting on past action, as if in a collection of reportage from various sources. This technique serves to create an objective distance between the subject—some unpleasant truths about American society and the American judicial system—and the reader, without diminishing the force of the narrative.
At times, Algren is eloquent, plunging into vivid descriptive passages or rhetorical flourishes. His description of Big Benjamin, the bouncer in the brothel where Ruby Calhoun’s girlfriend works, is written with...
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