Thursday, April 6, 2017

Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren

It sounds so bourgeois to say I take my Algren with my morning coffee. From my viewpoint, Algren is synonymous with Carl Sandburg, and even Studs Terkel and Mike Royko, the latter two being authors I met, albeit briefly. I was born in Chicago, raised on the suburban prairie, lived and walked Chicago’s streets, and recall fondly those childhood years of summer in the Windy City. I still live on the prairie, and these days I might cross Chicago’s city limits three or four times a year. Algren’s books came to me during my bohemian 1970s misadventures, and he is still part of my library. I have newer editions and some older paperbacks, vintage Algren, reprinted Algren, and a book of Art Shay’s Algren photographs. Chicago: City on the Make is that type of book that elicits admiring prose from intellectuals, effeminate reviewers, and hackneyed page eleven newspaper writers suffocating in their own egos. I saw copies for sale in the Metro train station bookstore and the O’Hara International Airport kiosk. They market Chicago: City on the Make as “Local Interest” and “Regional History” for tourists from Russia, Japan and that most exotic of locations, Pittsburg. Do they know what they’re reading? Algren is the hard-edged poet of the alleys and side-streets, social critic and political observer with an unflinching habit of telling the truth. Chicago: City on the Make is a prose poem turned essay and marked by historical commentary and a baseball fan’s bleacher seat wisdom. The hustlers and con-men, crooked politicians and semi-literate boxers with more knowledge than a tenured university professor all populate his prose. The title gives it away - City on the Make – and the current crooks in City Hall like to ignore that. Algren’s affection for Chicago is sequestered between unblemished prosody that rises up like a neon sign: “Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” The struggles of the common people, the incessant manipulation of the masses by a broken political system, and the endless dreams of a winning baseball team gone bad (The White Sox) are rendered here with anger, dismay, and perhaps a touch of hope. In Algren’s Chicago “Every day is D-day under the El.” Chicago: City on the Make is punctuated by elegiac moments, as bright as anything Carl Sandburg penned. In fact, the first edition of Chicago: City on the Make was dedicated to Sandburg. This slender volume is a raw, conversational treatise on a city and its people that Algren loved but refused to view through rose-tinted glasses. Also recommended are Algren’s Never Come Morning, The Neon Wilderness, A Walk on the Wild Side, The Man with the Golden Arm, and The Devil’s Stocking.

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