A Walk on the Wild Side, by Nelson Algren

A Walk on the Wild Side

The title of Nelson Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side was indeed the inspiration for the Lou Reed song, but the subject matter was not. The Reed song is about various denizens of the Andy Warhol clique in New York in the 1960s; the book is about lower class folks scuffling around trying to survive in 1930s Texas and New Orleans. Looked at broadly enough there’s some overlap—both works have to do with people who are in some sense marginal or not looked upon very favorably by mainstream society—but certainly not much.

A Walk on the Wild Side is the story of Dove Linkhorn. Dove is a teenager in small town Texas when we meet him, the son of a crazy sidewalk preacher, and the younger brother of a sickly atheist who likes to heckle their father while he’s preaching, and then debate theology with him at home just to get under his skin. Unschooled and illiterate, Dove starts hanging out in the kind of places his father surely would not approve, including hobo encampments and a little café populated by Mexicans and working class types and run by a young woman named Terasina.

Dove is at that part time little boy/part time grown man stage of life that can be almost as hard for others to deal with as it is to live through. He ingratiates himself with Terasina with his willingness to work. Soon she’s a mother/sister/harsh boss/friend/teacher/lover for him, with neither one being sure just how they best fit together, which results in awkwardness, miscommunication, hurt feelings, and worse.

They reach an unstable stage of conflict combined with sexual energy that blows apart what relationship they have.

I don’t know how the sex came across to readers decades ago, but I find it uncomfortable to read today. It’s that creepy macho “I’m the man so I’m going to take what I want” attitude combined with the “Well, that’s sort of what I want, for the man to be the man and all that, but then again I sort of don’t, and I want to be forced, but I don’t want to be forced, and I want to surrender and yet I want to be in control and have him stop whenever I say” attitude, where the resulting sex must have been at least borderline rape back then and would clearly cross the line into rape the way the term is used today.

Actually I doubt, though, that my reaction is due to having internalized the present day political correctness version of sex. When I came of age, the prevailing sexual conventions were probably closer to the 1930s than today, and I thought they were stupid even then. Even before “no means no” became dogma, I already pretended no meant no rather than “I’m not sure yet, so I really need you to keep pushing for it so I can feel like I put up a good fight before your persistence understandably wore me down, because only sluts have sex fully by choice.” I never found that game at all appealing, never was the slightest bit turned on by it. I thought it demeaned both sexes.

Granted, I think some of the more extreme versions of politically correct sex today—where women (but not men) are presumed to be unwilling unless the evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary—are silly too. But I found Dove’s “I’m a man and my hormones are raging” assertiveness highly unappealing. I much preferred him when he was in the mode of the humble young boy grateful to be guided into the adult world of employment, education, and sex by an experienced woman.

With his ties to Terasina blown apart by immaturity, there’s really not much keeping Dove in dreary cow town Texas. Certainly he has little reluctance to break from his family. So with no job or education prospects locally, he decides that the freedom represented by the hobo lifestyle of riding the rails doesn’t sound half bad.

In A Walk on the Wild Side, Algren takes Dove through many worlds in order to have an opportunity to portray multiple facets of the American underbelly of the 1930s. First we learn about the hobo life by following Dove, then later we explore such worlds with him as those of exploited and underpaid labor, crooked door-to-door salesman hustling, prostitution and vice, and prison.

The biggest portion of the book takes place in New Orleans, in the skid row district of houses of prostitution and dive bars, Perdido Street being identified as apparently the main drag in this district.

I’ve seen the novel described as being set in the French Quarter of New Orleans, but Perdido Street isn’t in the French Quarter. It’s several blocks south of there.

It’s also not in the famous Storyville district, which is immediately east of the French Quarter. That had been the center of New Orleans semi-legal prostitution for years, but from what I’ve read ceased to be a red light district in the 1910s, so well before the time of this book.

So anyway, most of the action takes place in central New Orleans, and if it’s not quite in the French Quarter, certainly it’s close enough that the characters routinely go in and out of the Quarter.

One reaction I had reading A Walk on the Wild Side was the same as I had to Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm. I find the writing just a little bit weaker when Algren strays from the gritty urban realism to more of a Twain or Vonnegut-style social commentary by way of satire/humor. It’s not that I never like that style of writing, but more that it feels incongruous with the established style of these novels. I don’t think the humorous characters and incidents provide enough gain to offset the loss of realism.

There’s one scene in the book that stands out to me in that regard. Dove finagles a job painting way up at the top of a mast on a ship. He goes up there and basically sleeps all day, doing no painting or any other work. When he comes back down he’s absolutely indignant that the boss is angry and doesn’t want to pay him.

I guess it’s supposed to be funny that he’s such a goldbrick and/or that he’s so naïve he thinks he deserves to get paid when he’s made no effort to even create the illusion he did any work. But to me it’s just dumb because I have trouble picturing anyone in real life behaving that way, expecting to be paid for doing nothing. (It then takes a step even further away from realism when the boss does in fact pay him to get rid of him.)

This scene is also one of multiple where Algren has his characters state their self-oppressing labor ideology in satirical ways. Dove is prone to brag about how he hates unions and such, and expects to be paid as little as possible for his labor because that’s the only way to rise to the top in America.

Maybe that kind of thing is implied by the ideology of right wing workers, but in the real world do people ever actually verbalize it so explicitly? Some of these lines expressing pride in being exploited might be funny in a Tom Tomorrow cartoon, but to me they don’t fit in this kind of novel about the seamy side of city life.

Algren is clearly highly sympathetic toward his characters, straining to show how just about every stupid or harmful thing they do or say is explainable in terms of how they’ve been oppressed.

But I feel he goes astray when he has a character express what is apparently his own contention that as damaged and desperate as people on the bottom are, what they don’t do is turn on each other. They may do plenty that mainstream society disapproves of—like work as prostitutes, get drunk in public, whatever—but for the most part these are “victimless crimes” that aren’t genuinely wrong and don’t hurt others, the character asserts.

But the problem is that that claim is just plain false. Of course the poor turn on each other and victimize each other. And they do so plenty in Algren’s own books, including this one. Indeed it’s to his credit that the world of the downtrodden that he portrays in his writings does not consist overwhelmingly of the sort of noble poor we encounter in a John Steinbeck book. These are indeed damaged and desperate people, and as a result they don’t always refrain from cheating, raping, killing, and exploiting when presented with someone even more vulnerable than themselves. Deception and violence are sadly routine means they fall back on to achieve their ends.

Algren has the honesty to portray that, but then it’s as if he forgets he has done so.

He’d be on firmer ground if he claimed that it’s somewhat more excusable for desperate people to do bad things (though they would still be bad). If you’re going to cut some moral corners and screw somebody over because otherwise you might not have enough to eat or a roof over your head I agree that’s less reprehensible (though, again, still wrong) than if you’re screwing someone over because you want to increase your net worth from its current $20 million. But to say that the oppressed have some kind of loyalty to each other that prevents them from victimizing each other is a different point, and is one that is belied by plenty of other scenes in this very book.

Algren hits hard on the hypocrisy of prostitution laws, and of looking down on “sex workers.” He presents it as all a kind of game—though with very ungamelike consequences for the prostitutes themselves—the way there is more than enough demand for this kind of service from men from “polite society,” and yet periodically those same people, motivated by some craven political calculation or whatever, see fit to crack down on those who provide the service.

I have mixed feelings about how well you can really get inside the characters in this book. At times it feels like Algren is very good at putting you in their shoes, at helping you understand what people who live lives like these think and feel. At other times I feel just the opposite, like I’m being kept at a certain distance and don’t feel as much empathy, because these characters don’t feel quite real and three-dimensional enough to reach me emotionally.

With some of them, including Dove, it may just be that they aren’t mature enough, aren’t sophisticated enough, to have all that complex an inner life that a reader can come to understand and empathize with. Somehow Dove never felt as real or as significant to me as Frankie in The Man With the Golden Arm, but maybe that’s because he’s little more than a kid and Frankie is a grown man.

I want to say though that by the latter stages of the book I did start feeling more for Dove, and did have more of the sense that we were more consistently getting beneath the surface of these characters. And maybe that’s precisely how it should be: As Dove is battered around by life more, experiences being both a victim and a victimizer more, sees more and hears more, and simply ages into adulthood, it’s to be expected that he’ll very gradually gain a certain amount of wisdom, become more self-aware, become more reflective, and develop some maturity and depth.

A Walk on the Wild Side is a solid novel, clearly a worthwhile read, though I’d put it a bit behind The Man With the Golden Arm.

At least that was my assessment before I came to the ending of A Walk on the Wild Side, which at the very least closes the gap between the two. What happens to Dove is as powerful and memorable as anything in either of the two Algren novels I’ve read. Maybe it hit me as hard as it did because it taps into a phobia of mine, I’m not sure. But it leaves me thinking of A Walk on the Wild Side as a good book with a better ending.


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