Appreciation #2

“Nelson Algren” by Joseph S. Pete


nelson algren 3

Nelson Algren loathed the film adaptation of “The Man with the Golden Arm,” refusing to be photographed by a marquee of a movie he “had nothing to do with” and saying Frank Sinatra’s take on down-on-his-luck vet Frankie Machine made it look like he was trying to recover from a cold instead of quit morphine.

But it landed the Detroit-born Chicagoan a windfall he used to buy a beach cottage in the Miller neighborhood of nearby Gary, Indiana. One winter, he bought a six-pack from a package store and took a popular shortcut across an iced-over lagoon, but the ice cracked and gave way, plunging him into frigid water. Though delirious, he warned rescuers not to venture onto the brittle ice and instead throw a rope to drag him out.

Algren was always like that, empathetic.

His compassion was why he was known as “the bard of the down-and-outer.” Some think he developed a fondness for life’s castaways and woebegone losers after he was jailed for five months in Texas for stealing a typewriter during the Great Depression. They blamed his stubborn attachment to the squalid underbelly of outsiders and sinners for his waning stature, even after he won a National Book Award for Fiction, saying he remained fixated on the downtrodden while society started to view the world in a more optimistic light.

Maybe Algren cared too much. Nobody wrote as well about addicts, the poor, the hustlers, the wretched refuse just trying to get by.

Joseph S. Pete is an award-winning journalist, an Iraq War veteran and a Baconfest Chicago Poet Laureate who’s been widely published in journals like Lumpen, the Blue Collar Review, Stoneboat and Prairie Winds.

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