Nelson Algren Short Fiction Analysis
Included in the collection The Neon Wilderness, the story “Design for Departure” contains the title phrase and sets the tone of the collection. The story contains some heavy-handed Christian symbolism, which can be seen in the names of the main characters, Mary and Christy. Mary closely resembles the protagonist of Stephen Crane’s novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893); however, her world of “Kleenex, fifty-cent horse (betting) tickets and cigarette snipes” is more a collage than a slice of gutter life. Mary is a shell of a person in her job wrapping bacon and a passive victim of a rape by a deaf man named Christiano, which seems to affect her no more than the moral problems of engaging in a badger game with Ryan, the proprietor of The Jungle (a club) or the subsequent arrest and jail term of her boyfriend Christy. When Christy is released from jail, he finds Mary on the game and on drugs, and she warns him off: She is diseased. At her request, he gives her a fatal overdose. The character of Mary is so void of emotion or response to her life that it is difficult for the reader to feel anything for her. Although there are some bright passages of real-life dialogue in the story, they tend to contribute to the self-conscious tone of the story rather than elevate its quality.
“The Face on the Barroom Floor”
A less self-conscious and more successful story is “The Face on the Barroom Floor,” a sketch that introduces one of the prototypes of A Walk on the Wild Side. Algren renders the bloody, senseless fight in the story marvelously. Although he does not seem to understand the psychology of the prizefighter, he effectively describes the brutal poundings of the fight. He creates a similar appeal through vivid description in “He Swung and He Missed.” The little guy beaten to a pulp in the ring stands for the victim of “The System”; however, Algren occasionally succeeds in making him more than a symbol.
“How the Devil Came Down Division Street”
Algren’s material is most successful when he records in journalistic manner—rather than manipulates as a writer of fiction—the real-life language and insights of his characters. Where “Design for Departure” is ambitious and basically fails, “How the Devil Came Down Division Street” succeeds because Algren has...
(The entire section is 972 words.)