Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 728
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 door-to-door and work in a condom factory before having his great success as the Big Stingaree, “deflowerer” of “virgins” in a sex show. This rise to the top of the bottom is central to Algren’s parody. In one scene, Dove watches a headless turtle crawl to the top of a pile of decapitated turtles before toppling to the bottom, where there is always room for one more. Dove himself slides to the bottom when he runs off with a teacher turned prostitute, whose lover, the legless Achilles Schmidt, will eventually blind Dove during a savage beating just after he learns to read.
Despite the many amusing and colorful scenes set in brothels and condom factories, the book’s core is its examination of love and guilt. Love is resisted because it can kill, as it does the little girl who goes after her doll under the wheels of a train, or threaten one’s self-sufficiency, as it does Schmidt’s. Dove rebels against Terasina’s power, only to learn that violence renders him permanently dependent through guilt. Initially, domination may seem the only basis for emotional relationships in a society that rewards deceit and force, but violence puts a man beyond salvation by destroying his contact with others.
Though less preachy than Somebody in Boots, A Walk on the Wild Side indicts a society where there is “self-reliance for the penniless and government help to the rich” and where the men who profit from vice are the very ones who inveigh against it and where the losers are jailed, having been given their “chance.” During the Depression, the ladder of success was inverted; everyone was on the street hustling for a living and selling something. Dove is warned to watch out for trust and friends, but he comes to wonder if he wants success when it is always at the expense of “them who have already been whipped.”
At the end, as Schmidt beats Dove’s face into a bloody pulp, others stand around and exult “as though each fresh blow redeemed that blow that his life had been to him.” Algren believed that this is what capitalism reduces people to: the violence of despair. When the same crowd rushes Schmidt to his death, he goes as “a saint of the amputees,” knowing that he has done their work for them. This Christ-like acceptance of guilt and connection with others is the only salvation the world offers: Dove returns home, ready for love at last and hoping Terasina will take him in.