I read a lot as a kid, indiscriminately. In the fifth grade I might be reading Treasure Island, The Black Stallion, The Caine Mutiny, White Fang, Fail Safe and whatever World War II combat memoirs and Readers’ Digest condensed novels my parents had kicking around the house, often simultaneously. I wrote stories as well, mostly intentional or unintentional parodies of books I’d read or movies and TV shows I’d seen. But the idea that a writer was something you could be, that I might write something that could get out in the world and be read by other people, was fairly late in coming.
I think I was in junior high school, twelve or thirteen years old, when I came across Nelson Algren’s Somebody in Boots. Typical of my scattered approach to reading, I picked it up because I saw on the jacket that he had written A Walk on the Wild Side and I really liked Brook Benton’s title song from the movie (I hadn’t yet seen the movie, which falls apart after the opening titles by Saul Bass). I had read Grapes of Wrath at this point, and my parents had told me stories about the Depression era, but Algren’s book brought it alive to me in a more visceral way—it is an epic of powerlessness. The protagonist—poor, ignorant, small—has some humane impulses, but it is clear they will only be a liability in the mean world he lives in. There are brief glimpses of hope, moments of peace, but then somebody in boots stomps in and the fun is over.
I don’t think I set foot in a bookstore or knew such a thing existed (my parents were teachers and brought stuff home from school but I can’t remember them buying a book) until I was in college. So I began to dig into the card catalogues of the local libraries looking for more things by Algren. I read his short stories, a few of his essays and reportage. I’d never been to Chicago, never played poker or bet on the horses, but somehow his world was very familiar to me. The books were funny, not because Algren made fun of the characters, but because the characters understood the humor of desperation. A story like “A Bottle of Milk for Mother,” in which world-weary cops banter with the night’s haul of murderers, drunks and thieves as one by one they face the hard glare of a police line-up, has a bizarre, stand-up comedy feeling, where all the participants, cops and criminals, understand that the joke is on them. Algren was a devotee of Hemingway!, but his characters barely kept up the facade of living according to a code. They tried to survive day by day and the best and most compelling of them knew their own weaknesses. There is no second chance in Hemingway, whereas Algren’s characters often hit bottom halfway through the book, then have to take a good look at each other and push on.
Reading Algren was not unlike reading Faulkner in that I came to have a geographical impression of the world he created, meeting characters central to one story on the periphery of another, finding themes repeated and expanded upon. But Algren’s world, mostly city-dwelling immigrants and small-time operators, was more familiar to me than Faulkner’s guilt-ridden Mississippi. The cruelty Algren’s characters showed to each other was more venal and immediate, not based on some deep historical sin but on everyday human frailty, deceit, selfishness and longing. He is wise to his characters but not dismissive, his sentiment tempered with irony. When the rough edges he worked so well began to gentrify he moved from Chicago but never really found another home. He is one of those writers, like Faulkner or Cheever or Raymond Chandler or Zane Grey, who owns a piece of turf in the American imagination. You think “Nelson Algren’s Chicago” and it’s sure—I know exactly—there.
Beside entering his world, I got something else from reading Algren. It was the realization that, hey, they let this guy get away with this stuff, recognizable human behavior, people with warts and humor and appetites, and somebody typed it up in a book and got it out in the world. Maybe I could do something like that. I remember reading a book with the dedication “For Nelson Algren—who does not know me from Adam and should not be held responsible.” The people who influence you to write aren’t necessarily who you’re going to write like, but the fact of their existence, of the existence of their characters, the spirit in them, opens up a possibility in your mind. There have been a lot of writers whose work I got into later that really knocked me out, writers who brought me into worlds unknown and opened up areas of style and technique that helped me get my own act together. But the one who jump-started me from reader to writer was Nelson Algren, who I never met and should not be held responsible.