Who was the toughest of the tough-guy writers? Ernest Hemingway? Norman Mailer? B. Traven? James M. Cain? Samuel Fuller? David Goodis? Leonard Gardner? Mickey Spillane? Jim Thompson? James Ellroy? Hunter S. Thompson?
None of the above. The toughest of the tough-guy writers was Nelson Algren, author of The Man with the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side and subject of the wondrous new documentary Algren. He mostly did his fighting with a typewriter, although he boxed some. But what really distinguishes Algren is his affection for the overlooked and downtrodden—the pimps, hustlers, jackrollers, winos, prostitutes and bad-bet gamblers he brought to the pages of his novels and non-fiction, the losers nobody cared about. As he once declared in a speech: “The true voice of the city is the voice of the inarticulate.” Michael Caplan’s documentary portrait opens up Algren’s point of view as a living scrapbook of those irresistible voices and images from the author’s hometown, Chicago.
First and foremost are the “3 Rules of Life”: Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own. Then, in a whirlwind of reminiscences from a herd of admirers, come the details of a man’s life.
Algren was born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham in Detroit in 1909. Soon afterward his auto-mechanic father moved the family to Chicago. Young Nelson hit the road during the Depression, joined the Federal Writers’ Project, served as an Army medic in World War II Europe and earned a bachelor’s in English from the University of Illinois. But he soon gravitated to hanging out in taverns and listening to his fellow tipplers, those who found “rest and friendship and love in the bottom of a whiskey glass”—the same people who populate Algren’s short story collection The Neon Wilderness. They never let him down. “You must love a city’s alleys, and also its stray cats,” he wrote.
The Neon Wilderness was banned by some stores. One critic moaned, “This book is an insult.” A growing cadre of writers and editors thought otherwise. Algren was tagged “The Bard of the Slums” for honoring the drunks, the floozies and the under-card prize fighters. And after he published his novels The Man with the Golden Arm, about the travails of a Polish-American heroin addict; A Walk on the Wild Side, about being down and out in New Orleans; and the flavorful collection of streetwise essays Chicago: City on the Make, he had the best seat at O’Rourke’s bar on North Avenue all to himself. Richard Wright (Native Son) called Algren “the best writer of good prose in the U.S.A.”
Hollywood came knocking, but in Algren’s opinion his narratives suffered in translation to the silver screen. Golden Arm seemed to have everything—Frank Sinatra; Kim Novak, a Chicago product herself; and Elmer Bernstein’s powerful jazz score. Algren and Director Otto Preminger, however, couldn’t get along. The author accelerated into the international fast lane in his amour fou with French intellectual Simone de Beauvoir, who was simultaneously juggling Algren and existentialist guru Jean-Paul Sartre. The “Dostoevsky of Division Street” dragged his celebrity squeeze to police lineups and the pyramids of Mexico, and predictably lost her. Then he ultimately failed to exploit his own notoriety. This was admirable. By the time Algren abandoned the Windy City for the artists’ colony of Sag Harbor, N.Y., he was more of a living legend than a currently best-selling writer.
Filmmaker Michael Caplan stuffs his doc with an abundance of Chicago-identified talking heads, among them William Friedkin, Barry Gifford, Andrew Davis, the ubiquitous Studs Terkel, Philip Kaufman, writer Denise DeClue, Michigan Avenue bookseller Stuart Brent—who claims Algren and de Beauvoir used his shop as a sex pad—and rock musician Billy Corgan. The thrillingly gritty photos by Art Shay, Stephen Deutch, Larry Kapson and other famous photographers of the era tell stories that would merit individual movies of their own. Dig in, it’s the real Chicago.