Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
A Walk on the Wild Side started as a revision of Somebody in Boots, but as it progressed, Algren transformed his serious first novel into a parody of the American Dream. Algren justified this on the grounds that, times having changed, he had to entertain readers. Moreover, disgusted by the triumph of materialism, he no longer believed that writing could change attitudes, only mock them. This apparently defensive response betrays a lack of confidence in what some critics considered to be a great idiosyncratic masterpiece of the absurd that prepared the way for such writers as Thomas Pynchon, Ken Kesey, Joseph Heller, and Hunter S. Thompson.
Dove Linkhorn is the last of a line of poor Texas rebels against authority. Illiterate but canny, Dove is a loser who is too innocent to feel like a loser. Incapable of recognizing society’s moral code, and so amoral, he does know when he has betrayed those who helped him. Deprived of any meaningful childhood, as Algren may have believed he himself was, Dove at sixteen wants two things, education and love, which he finds in Terasina Vidavarri. While trying to teach Dove the alphabet, she awakens his indefatigable virility, convincing him that he is a born world shaker. When she resists his later advances, he rapes her and flees, only to find he can escape neither his love nor his guilt for violating the reverence he feels for her.
In his subsequent adventures, he meets a cast of strange, but human, characters. He is as odd as the others, certainly, a wise fool, practically a cartoon figure. He learns the ways of the road from Kitty Twist; however, as so often happens in Algren’s works, the man lets the woman down. She gets caught during a robbery while he manages to escape, going on to sell...
(The entire section is 728 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Fitz Linkhorn barely manages to make a living pumping out cesspools, but his consuming vocation is preaching from the courthouse steps in Arroyo, a small town in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. He denounces all sins except drinking, because he is drunk as often as possible. Fitz has two sons: Byron, who is weak and sickly, and Dove. Dove has had no education because his father does not want to send him to a school with a Catholic principal. Instead, Dove is supposed to see movies with Byron to learn about life, but he never gets to go because his brother does not have the price of a ticket. Dove gets his education from the hoboes who hang around the Santa Fe tracks, telling one another what towns, lawmen, jails, and railroad bulls to avoid.
Dove begins hanging around the La Fe en Dios chili parlor in the ruins of the Hotel Crockett on the other side of town. The hotel is the place where Fitz had met the mother of his sons. The hotel is closed, but the seldom-visited café is not; it is run by Terasina Vidavarri, a wary woman who had been raped by a soldier. She continues Dove’s education by teaching him how to read from two books: a children’s storybook and a book about how to write business letters. Dove and Terasina eventually become lovers, and at one point Dove takes Terasina by force.
Byron steals from the café, and Terasina mistakenly blames Dove for the crime. She is so angered that she throws him out, and Dove leaves Arroyo on a freight train. He takes up with a girl named Kitty Twist, a runaway from a children’s home, and saves her life when she is about to fall under the wheels of a train. When the two attempt a burglary in Houston, Kitty is caught. Dove gets away on a freight train to New...
(The entire section is 710 words.)