The Neon Wilderness by Nelson Algren

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The Neon Wilderness Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

With The Neon Wilderness, Algren emerged as a mature and original spokesman for a whole class of people usually excluded from literature except as marginal and stereotyped caricatures. In place of the condescending tone of most writing about the poor, Algren demonstrates the compassion of a man determined to live up to the people he is writing about. The stories bristle with many of Algren’s characteristic thematic and stylistic concerns. The more focused short-story form undermines his didactic, Communist streak, and though there are times when Algren sentimentalizes his characters, this does not diminish the overall power of these stories.

“So Help Me,” his first published story, is a dramatic monologue using a favorite Algren device, the interrogation of a criminal. His use here of only the criminal’s voice lessens the effect, but the solidity of detail and attention to human voice create a convincing account of human isolation and the inevitability of violence, those constants of Algren’s work. Another characteristic touch is the repeated use of the title phrase, prompting both sympathy and doubt.

In “Design for Departure,” one of his attempts to write an important story, Algren carefully creates the urban jungle motif and brings out the religious parallels in this story of Mary and Christiano, victims of psychological and economic deprivation. Born into a world of despair, Mary wants only to die, and her whole life is directed toward that departure as she succumbs to the pervasive sense of doom. Unable to connect with the world, she suffers through an unloving upbringing, drug addiction, and prostitution before finally committing suicide. Deaf Christy, who helps her die when he cannot save her, is one of a whole line of cripples in Algren’s writing who are brutal yet not vicious so much as callous and spiritually starved.

The ending teeters between the moving and the sentimental, and some critics prefer Algren’s more spontaneous stories. With “How the Devil Came Down Division Street,” Algren dashed off one of his first comic masterpieces. Outrageous and bizarre, this supernatural story is told with a casual air that belies its grim moral, that the salvation of one character often necessitates the perdition of another. Irony is equally pronounced in “Depend on Aunt Elly,” a bitter love story about a prizefighter and a prostitute. Despite their devotion to each other and their recognition that they are each other’s only salvation, their lives are so determined that neither talent nor courage is proof against the simple bad luck of being who they are and being at the mercy of a greed more powerful than love.

Algren worked several of these stories into his novels. “A Bottle of Milk for Mother ,” for example,...

(The entire section is 694 words.)