The Neon Wilderness

by Nelson Algren

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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, tells of the accidental shooting for which Bruno “Lefty” Bicek takes the rap in the middle segment of Never Come Morning. Another interrogation story, this is an improvement over “So Help Me” because of the use of character interaction and an ironic narrator to depict Bruno’s self-incrimination under Captain Kozak’s masterful questioning. Kozak is one of Algren’s weary, guilt-haunted but clever cops, such as the captain in “The Captain Has Bad Dreams,” used in The Man with the Golden Arm.

In “The Face on the Barroom Floor,” later refashioned as the end of A Walk on the Wild Side, a thoughtless comment sparks a murderous brawl between Railroad Shorty, a powerful fighter cut in half by a train, and a callow young bartender. The story is a graphic tale of the inevitability of violence, given the desperate need for identity and self-respect in a world that denies them.

Throughout the book, characters are not seen as warped or degenerate but as ordinary humans with their lives twisted by circumstances. Their aberrant behavior is, for them, the active expression of their individuality, their defense in a world where violence and deceit are necessary because the highest value is survival and morality is useless. In “A Lot You Got to Holler,” for example, the protagonist says, “I was always in the clear so long as I was truly guilty. But the minute my motives were honest someone would finger me.”

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