Tuesday, May 06, 2014
***Sitting On The Rim Of The World- With The Son Of The Neon Wilderness Nelson Algren In Mind-Take Three
He wrote of small-voiced people, the desperately lonely, alienatedpeople who inhabit the Nighthawk Diner (artist Edward Hopper’s or Tom Waits’ take your pick), the restless, the sleepless, the shiftless, those who worked the late shift, those who drew the late shift of life, those who worked better under the cover of night in the dark alleyways and sullen doorways.
He wrote big time, big words, about the small-voiced people, big words for people who spoke in small words, spoke small words about small dreams, or no dreams, spoke only of the moment, the eternal moment. Waiting eternally waiting to get well, to get some kicks. Waiting for the fixer man, waiting for the fixer man to fix what ailed them. Not for him the small voice pleasant Midwestern farmers proving breadbaskets to the world, the prosperous small town drugstore owners, or of Miss Millie’s beauty salon (although one suspects that he could have) for in the pull and push of the writing profession they had (have) their muses. Nor was he inclined to push the air out of the small town banker seeking a bigger voice, the newspaper publisher seeking to control the voices or the alderman or his or her equivalent who had their own apparatuses for getting their small voices heard (although again one suspects he could have, if so inclined, shilled for that set). No, he, Nelson Algren, he, to give him a name took dead aim at the refuge of society, the lumpen as he put it in the title of one short story, those sitting on the rim of the world.
And he did good, did good by his art, did good by his honest snarly look at the underside of society, and, damn, by making us think about that quarter turn of fate that separated the prosperous farmer (assuming as we must that he, secretly, was not short-weighting the world), the drugstore owner (assuming as we must that he, secretly, was not dispensing his wares, his potent drugs, out the back door to a craving market) , Miss Millie (assuming as we must that she, secretly, was not running a call girl service on the side), the banker (assuming as we must that he, maybe secretly maybe not, was not gouging rack rents and usurious interest), the newspaper editor (assuming as we must that he, very publicly, in fact was printing all the news fit to print), and the politician (assuming as we must that he, secretly, was not bought and paid for by all of the above, or others) from the denizens of his mean streets. The mean city streets, mainly of Chicago, but that is just detail, just names of streets and sections of town to balance his work where his characters eked out an existence, well, anyway they could, some to turn up face down in some muddy ravine, under some railroad trestle, in some dime flop house, other to sort of amble along in the urban wilderness purgatory.
Brother Algren gave us characters to chew on, plenty of characters, mostly men, mostly desperate (in the very broadest sense of that word), mostly with some jones to work off, mostly with some fixer man in the background to wreak havoc too. He gave us two classics of the seamy side genre, one, the misbegotten Frankie Machine, the man with the golden arm, the man with the chip on his shoulder, the mid-century(20th century, okay) man ill at ease in his world, ill at ease with the world and looking, looking for some relief, some kicks in that mid-century parlance, and, two, that hungry boy, that denizen of the great white trash night, Dove Linkhorn, who, perhaps more than Frankie spoke to that mid-century angst, spoke to that world gone wrong, for those who had just come up, come up for some place where time stood still to gain succor in the urban swirl, to feast at the table,come up from the back forty lots, the prairie golden harvest wheat fields, the Ozarks, all swamps and ooze,mountain wind hills and hollows, the infested bayous and were ready to howl, howl at the moon to get attention.
I remember reading somewhere, and I have forgotten where now, that someone had noted that Nelson Algren’s writing on Dove Linkhorn roots was the most evocative piece on the meaning of the okie–arkie out migration segment of that mid-century America ever written, the tale of the wandering boys, the railroad riders, the jungle camp jumpers, the skid row derelicts. Hell, call it by its right name, the white trash, that lumpen mush. And he or she was right, of course, after I went back and re-read that first section of Walk On The Wild Side where the Linkhorn genealogy back unto the transport ships that brought the first crop of that ilk from thrown out Europe are explored. All the pig thieves, cattle-rustlers, poacher, highwaymen, the “what did some sociologist call them, oh yeah, “the master-less men, those who could not or would not be tamed by the on-rushing wheels of free-form capitalism picked up steam, the whole damn lot transported. And good riddance.
The population of California after World War II was filled to the brim with such types, the feckless hot rod boys, boys mostly too young to have been though the bloodbaths of Europe and Asia building some powerful road machines out of baling wire and not much else, speeding up and down those ocean-flecked highways looking for the heart of Saturday night, looking for kicks just like those Chicago free-flow junkies, those twisted New Orleans whoremasters. Wandering hells angels riding two by two (four by four if they felt like it and who was to stop them) creating havoc for the good citizens of those small towns they descended on, descended on unannounced (and unwelcomed by those same good citizens). In and out of jail, Q, Folsom, not for stealing pigs now, but armed robberies or some egregious felony, but kindred to those lost boys kicked out of Europe long ago. Corner boys, tee-shirted, jacket against cold nights, hanging out with time on their hands and permanent smirks, permanent hurts, permanent hatreds, paid to that Algren observation. All the kindred of the cutthroat world, or better cut your throat world, that Dove drifted into was just a microcosm of that small-voiced world.
He spoke of cities, even when his characters came fresh off the farm, abandoned for the bright lights of the city and useless to that short-weighting farmer who now is a prosperous sort, making serious dough as the breadbasket to the world. They, the off-hand hot rod king, the easy hell rider, the shiftless corner boy, had no existence in small towns and hamlets for their vices, or their virtues, too small, too small for the kicks they were looking for. They needed the anonymous city rooming house, the cold-water flat, the skid- row flop house, the ten- cent beer hall, hell, the railroad jungle, any place where they could just let go with their addictions, their anxieties, and their hunger without having to explain, endlessly explain themselves, always, always a tough task for the small-voiced of this wicked old world. They identified with cities, with city 24/7/365 lights, with Algren’s blessed neon lights, city traffic (of all kinds), squalor, cops on the take, cops not on the take, plebeian entertainments, sweat, a little dried blood, marked veins, reefer madness, swilled drinks, white towers, all night diners (see it always comes back to that lonely, alienated Nighthawk Diner just ask Waits), the early editions (for race results, the number, who got dead that day, the stuff of that world), a true vision of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawk for a candid world.He spoke of jazz and the blues, as if all the hell in this wicked old world could be held off for a minute while that sound sifted thought the night fog air reaching the rooming house, the flop, the ravine, the beer hall as it drifted out to the river and drowned. Music not upfront but as a backdrop to while the steamy summer nights away, and maybe winter too. Strangely, or maybe not so strangely, he spoke of a small-voiced white world, residents of white slums and pursuers of white- etched dreams and only stick character blacks but his beat, his writing rhythm made no sense without the heat of Trouble In Mind or that cool blast of Charlie Parker, Miles, Dizzie be-bopping, made absolutely no sense, and so it went.
He spoke of love too. Not big flamed love, big heroes taking big falls for some hopeless romance like in olden times but squeezed love, love squeezed out of a spoon, maybe, but love in all its raw places. A guy turning his woman into a whore to feed his endless habit love, and her into a junkie love. A woman taking her man through cold turkey love. A man letting his woman go love, ditto woman her man when the deal went wrong. When the next best thing came by. Not pretty love all wrapped in a bow, but love nevertheless. And sometimes in this perverse old world the love a man has for a woman when, failing cold turkey, he goes to get the fixer man and that fixer man get his woman well, almost saintly and sacramental. Brothers and sisters just read The Last Carousel if you want to know about love. Hard, hard love. Yah, Nelson Algren knew how to give voice, no holds barred, to the small-voiced people.