Algren, Nelson. A Walk on the Wild Side. Classic Reprint Series. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1956.
Algren, Nelson. Nonconformity: Writing on Writing. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1996.
Stark and Naked
The tone of Nelson Algren’s novel Walk on the Wild Side is not macabre, gothic, or noir; nor does it encapsulate the idea of enchantment, although the spirit of joie de vivre is definitely evident in this work of picaresque fiction. And while the landscape Algren paints with concrete and vivid language has the ability to disturb the reader’s sensibilities with an unrelenting portrayal of a vagrant transient who is at home in some of the world’s most contemptible places, a certain lightness of air seasoned with a palatable sprinkling of satiric commentary compels the reader to travel along with Dove Linkhorn on an episodic adventure that often mirrors the sights and sounds of a carnival midway.
Algren begins this walk through the world of the Great Depression in America with a history of the Linkhorn family. It is a short history of ten pages that is Faulkneresque in nature. A conversation, if you will, with the reader but not at the reader. Not a history lesson, though a lesson could be gleaned from a family that was “lost long ago, in come colder country. Lost anew by generations since.” While this history denotes a sense of being cheated then lost in America, Dove Linkhorn’s story is about raping, stealing, and conning his way through life as chance encounters rather than a deliberate, deterministic way of life. The length and breadth of his story is set in 1930s New Orleans, and while he is comfortable at home in the pissy world where the wet, dampness of this Mississippi River port town permeates everything from concrete streets to rotten timber reinforcing dilapidated houses and near bankrupt businesses, Dove’s awareness is not one of being cheated, lost, or conned, but rather just a way to live. He doesn’t know anything different. And in the story, his way of life begins with a reflection that he “could not remember a time, a place nor a single person, house cat or hound dog that had sought his affection.” Sentimentality is not the emotion here. It’s just a statement of fact, plain and simple, like a picture hanging on the wall, but this isn’t a picture, it’s someone’s life where many people wind up living.
For the reader to understand the nature of the story, perhaps Nelson Algren’s ideas about writing a novel will provide some insight. He writes in his nonfiction work Nonconformity: Writing on Writing that, “You don’t write a novel out of sheer pity any more than you blow a safe out of a vague longing to be rich.” He goes on to add, “A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery. Never on the earth of man has he lived so tidily as here amidst such psychological disorder.” The “walk on the wild side” takes the reader into the underbelly of America where the path leads to the seedy side of New Orleans populated by the homeless, transients, thieves, whores, alcoholics, drug addicts, and the simple folk who conduct business here where the filth of society is common place.
Dove Linkhorn comes to live here as well, trying in a haphazard way, to lift himself up with the notion of earning enough money to gain the pleasures of life--better clothes, fine dining, female companionship—but not, as the rags to riches stories of the time would have us believe, to use money to wash away the filth. And how does he earn his money? By selling ten-dollar coupons for fifty cents as part of an introductory offer for a woman to have her hair cut and styled. The idea that the salon whose name is printed on the coupon will never accept the coupons is not part of Dove’s moral make-up. He’s a marketer, a capitalist, earning a living to buy drink and pleasures of the flesh on his way up to what he’s certain will be a fine, fine life indeed.
Make no mistake, this uneducated, dirty, nasty, filthy man, Dove Linkhorn, is not a romantic in the guise of a somewhat loveable Fagin of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Early on in the novel, when Dove is blackmailed into stealing from his lover’s café, she (Terasina) soon learns what he has done and kicks him out, but not before he rapes her. He then hops a freight train to Houston where he takes up with Kitty Twist, a girl from a children’s runaway home. First, he saves her life when she is about to fall under the wheels of a train only to leave her later when she is caught while they attempt a burglary. Hopping another freight train to New Orleans, it is here where the base of his rough and dishonest adventures really began to take shape. In the end, though, after living in a brothel and then working in a bar where he matches girls pretending to be virgins with unsuspecting (really?) customers, Dove is soon beaten by a jealous, former circus strongman whose legs have been cut off by a train. The beating blinds Dove, and with much trouble, he makes his way back to his former lover Teresina and her café.
Throughout Dove Linkhorn’s adventure, he encounters, and sometimes collides with, worldly evil, depravity, baseness, and vulgarity, all graphically portrayed without the outrage of a Sinclair Lewis expose. While it is true Algren’s Walk on the Wild Side reveals critical views of American capitalism and materialism and debauchery, the lens with which he captures these sights are, on the surface, not so much judgmental but rather as a portrayal of a brutal reality created with the lightness of tone found in a picaresque novel like Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Read Walk on the Wild Side with the knowledge that the story is delightful, but the picture is disgusting, much like a whore who is beautiful and alluring, yet in the end, she is still just a whore, but more than that, she is a human being alive and well down on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Life is bitch but really it’s a whore because we all must pay for it sooner or later.
Reviewed by Paul Medus, Ph.D.
Throughout my professional life I have been called upon to use my writing skills in a variety of endeavors: advertising, newsletters, public relations, marketing plans, grants, political campaigns, business reports, project management, and public speaking.
I have been a newspaper reporter, grinder, radioman in the Navy, window installer, truck driver, grain elevator operator, oil field derrick hand, country store manager, stockbroker, mental health clinic administrator, city consultant, teacher, and a communications specialist.
Except for a stint in the Navy on a ship out of Pearl Harbor and a short stay in Denver, Colorado, I have lived all my life in Louisiana, specifically Acadiana, located in the south central region of the state.
As I get older time moves faster, but I just keep moving along while remaining rooted in Cajun Country where good food, good music, and good people make life worth living.
Bachelor of Science. Economics and Finance. McNeese University
Masters of Arts. English. University of Louisiana – Lafayette
Ph.D. English/Creative Writing. University of Louisiana – Lafayette