Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren

You are a good person, pay your taxes, honour your parents, do an honest’s days work…so nothing in common with whores, drug addicts, boot-lickers, queers, hustlers, drunkards, jail fodder. You are a good honest citizen looking out for others.

Last week I was on a train that got stuck outside of Bristol by the floods for several hours, we moved up and down the tracks and stopped before moving up and down the tracks. Eventually we returned to Taunton and were dumped at the station. The promised coaches did not turn up, it was bucketing down rain and no one from the rail company took any responsibility to tell what was happening or to manage how and who got access to the coaches when they arrived. When they did in dribs and drabs 300+ people ran as if we were fleeing a doomed city. No thoughts given to parents with babes in arms, to elderly passengers struggling with heavy cases. I bet you that we were all good people, who pay our taxes…

In Walk on the Wild Side, Nelson Algren asks “why lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives. Why men who have suffered at the hands of other men are the natural believers in humanity, while those whose part has been simply to acquire, to take all and give nothing, are the most contemptuous of mankind."

The book was written at the on set of the cold war in the 1950’s but is set in the Deep south of the early 1930’s. Algren himself went into popular and critical decline soon after in part due to the abuses of McCarthyism and in part to his own hard drinking, gambling and drug taking.

The story starts with Dove a Southern trailer trash illiterate 16 year old in the Mexican-Texas border. His grandfather is traveling preacher…described by Dove as the type that makes you want to throw your Bible away. He is barefoot, and in country yokel jeans. At the end he is in the height of fashion albeit bedraggled due to prison sentence for being drunk and disorderly.

Along the way we see the ins and outs of hustling, working in a peepshow, making and selling rubbers. We meet the women he loves or has sex with and one who keeps her humanity perhaps to love him. This unfolds as he jumps trains to New Orleans and then tries to make a living.

The narrative can at time feel like a series of short stories threaded together but its both naturalistic and funny. See Dove as an innocent abroad who walks where others fear to tread and so sails through danger that passes over his head. It also has lots of little passages of songs scatters throughout the book. Walk on the Wild Side by Lou Reed is based on the book and was going to be part of a musical of the book- want to see that if it ever happens!

It has to be said it’s a flawed masterpiece but still better then many other writers best work so give it a try and get a sense if you could believe in humanity if crushed at the bottom of the pile.

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