Nelson Algren Long Fiction Analysis
Whether the setting is Chicago or New Orleans, Nelson Algren’s characters live, dream, and die in an environment alien to most Americans, many of whom have achieved the financial success and spiritual failure endemic to the American Dream. His characters are, at their best, losers in the quest for success; at their worst, they are spectators, not even participants, in that competitive battle. Although hisprotagonists do aspire to escape from their environments, to assume new identities, and to attain that American Dream, they are so stunted by their backgrounds and so crippled by their own guilt that their efforts are doomed from the start, and their inevitable fates often involve the punishment that their guilt-ridden souls have unconsciously sought. In Never Come Morning, Bruno cannot escape his guilt for allowing Steffi to be raped by his gang and almost welcomes his punishment for the murder of another man; in The Man with the Golden Arm, Frankie Machine cannot escape his guilt for the accident that incapacitates his wife and so can end his drug addiction only by hanging himself; in A Walk on the Wild Side, Dove cannot escape his guilt for having raped Terasina, to whom he returns after having been blinded in a fight. In all three novels, the guilt that the man experiences from having abused a woman leads to a self-destructive impulse that negates his attempt to escape from his environment and produces the punishment he seeks.
Never Come Morning
Although it is not his first published novel, Never Come Morning is Algren’s first major novel. As the chronicle of a young man’s passage from boyhood to manhood, Never Come Morning is another, albeit more cynical, American initiation novel, in which Bruno Bicek’s initiation leads to his death. Like many young men, Bruno dreams of escaping from the ghetto through professional sports, either boxing or baseball (“Lefty” Bicek is a pitcher), but Algren quickly indicates, through similar chapter headings, that Bruno shares a “problem” with Casey Benkowski, his idol, whose defeat in the boxing ring foreshadows Bruno’s eventual defeat in life. Bruno’s dreams are illusory, the product of the media: He reads Kayo magazine, sees pictures of boxers on matchbook covers, and watches James Cagney films. His dream of becoming a “modern Kitchel” (Kitchel was a former Polish American boxing champion) reflects his desire to become someone else, to define his success in terms of other people, not himself. To become a successful man, he seeks status as the president and treasurer of the Warriors, his street gang, but his allegiance to the gang reflects his childish dependence on the group, not his adult leadership of it. His “other-directedness” also affects his relationship with Steffi, whom he seduces partly in order to gain status from the Warriors, who subsequently assert their own sexual rights to her. Rather than defend her and reveal the very “softness” that wins the reader’s respect, he yields to the Warriors, thereby forsaking independence and manhood and incurring the guilt that eventually destroys him.
Like most of Algren’s women, Steffi has a supporting role and exists primarily in terms of the male protagonist. She is the agent by which Bruno comes of age sexually, acquires his spiritual guilt, eventually becomes an independent man, and, finally, since she has alienated the informant Bonifacy, is doomed. Despite being the victim of a gang rape, Steffi retains her capacity for love and forgiveness, limited as that is, and becomes the stereotyped “whore with a heart of gold” whose love enables the “hero,” antiheroic as he is, to overcome the odds. Her passivity is reflected symbolically through Algren’s description of a fly without wings in Steffi’s room: After he “seduces” her, Bruno destroys the fly. Later, when Bruno wins a Kewpie doll and subsequently and unthinkingly destroys it, Algren ties the fate of the doll, an appropriate symbol, to Steffi, who is won and destroyed by Bruno. Steffi’s fate seems even crueler than Bruno’s, as he will “escape” in death but Steffi will remain trapped with the other prostitutes who endure at “Mama” Tomek’s brothel.
Before he is incarcerated, Bruno does mature through a series of tests that prove his manhood. Although he cannot articulate his love and desire for forgiveness, he does come to understand that love is compatible with manhood. When he arranges a fight for himself with Honeyboy Tucker, he acts independently; when he overcomes Fireball Kodadek and Tiger Pultoric, Bonifacy’s thugs, he overcomes his fear of physical mutilation (Fireball’s knife) and of his idol and father figure (Pultoric is the former champion). Before he can “be his own man,” Bruno must overcome his childish dependence and hero worship. Bruno’s subsequent victory over Tucker makes his earlier symbolic victory official and gives him the identity he seeks as a promising “contender,” but that identity is destroyed when he is arrested only minutes later and sent to jail.
Images of imprisonment pervade the novel, which is concerned with the institutions that house inmates. When Bruno first serves time, Algren digresses to describe prison life, just as he digresses when he recounts Steffi’s life at the brothel, where she is no less a prisoner. While she is there, she dreams of a “great stone penitentiary” and of the “vault” that is the barber’s room. The prison and the brothel are appropriate institutions for a city that Algren compares to a madhouse. (Algren also sees the prostitutes as inmates of an insane asylum.) There is no escape for Steffi or Bruno, just as there is no real morning in this somber tale of darkness and night. Algren’s Chicago is America in microcosm: As madhouse, prison, and brothel, it is an insane, entrapped world where people “sell out,” thereby prostituting themselves.
The Man with the Golden Arm
In The Man with the Golden Arm, also set in Polish American Chicago, Algren reiterates many of the themes, images, and character types that exist in Never Come Morning. Although the novel’s controversial theme of drug addiction has received much attention, Algren is not concerned with drug addiction per se but rather with the forces, external and internal, that lead to the addictive, dependent personalities that render people unable to cope with their environments or escape from them. Once again, Algren’s characters are life’s losers, “the luckless living soon to become the luckless dead,” the “wary and the seeking, the strayed, the frayed, the happy and the hapless, the lost, the luckless, the lucky and the doomed” who become the “disinherited,” those who emerge “from the wrong side of its [America’s] billboards.” The “hunted who also hope” in Never Come Morning become the “pursued” in The Man with the Golden Arm, which also relies on naturalistic metaphors comparing people and animals.
Given that the characters are themselves victims of a system that excludes them, it seems ironic that they should experience guilt, but Algren’s...
(The entire section is 2950 words.)