If any American writer seemed to step out of a 1940s film noir, it was Nelson Algren. ”The Neon Wilderness,” ”A Walk on the Wild Side,” and his other books were populated by hustlers, whores, and cynical cops, and so were the bleak precincts of Chicago’s Northwest Side, where he lived. Algren preferred skid rows, lowlife taverns, and racetracks to literary politics and cocktail parties; like his own marginal characters, he approached life with a mix of fatalism and dark, deadpan humor.
The Man With the Golden Arm – his story of doomed cardsharp and morphine addict Frankie Machine (a.k.a. Francis Majcinek), along with Sparrow Saltskin, Zosh, Molly, Nifty Louie, Record Head Bednar, and other eminent Chicagoans – won the first National Book Award in 1950 and was praised by Ernest Hemingway and a chorus of critics. But by the ’60s his reputation was in eclipse, and after he died in 1981, he was almost forgotten, his blend of social realism and an evocative half-poetic, half-ironic style having fallen out of fashion as writers narrowed their focus and flattened their prose.
Now Algren is being rediscovered at last. Seven Stories Press has just published this 50th-anniversary critical edition of ”The Man With the Golden Arm,” which includes critical appreciations, reminiscences by friends like Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, and Kurt Vonnegut, and photographs by Art Shay showing Algren in his element – playing poker, peering into a bar, consorting with his longtime transatlantic lover, the French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir.
Maybe people are finally realizing that Algren was the last major representative of the urban American realism that began with Stephen Crane’s ”Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” and Theodore Dreiser’s ”Sister Carrie.” Or maybe it’s just that Algren was an authentic, uncompromising original with an unconventional style and view of life, whose best books are still full of gritty, scabrous, tragicomic vitality.