Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Book review: A Walk on the Wild Side

When Nelson Algren's novel A Walk on the Wild Side first hit the shelves, in 1956, it raised a lot of eyebrows.  The book is a story from the darkest years of the Great Depression:  an illiterate Texas drifter, Dove Linkhorn, makes his way from east Texas to New Orleans across a morally-lurid landscape.

But in 1956, America was in ascension.  A world war had just been won, and demand for American goods and services throughout the world were at an all-time high.  A book like Wild Side, with its depictions of prostitutes, flimflam men, drunks and social outcasts, its matter-of-fact acknowledgment of American racism, its honest presentations of the misery of America's all-too-recent past, was bound to make folks uneasy.  The book was declared obscene and banned from the Chicago Public Library.

Well, Chicago readers missed out.  Because, in addition to being powerful social commentary, Wild Side is hilarious.  Dove Linkhorn's misadventures made me laugh out loud.  Though a simpleton, Dove is complex and conflicted.  On the one hand, he is kind and sensitive and, in his own way, honest.  On the other, he sometimes uses his own ignorance to absolve himself of responsibility for his own appalling behavior.  His world is populated with intriguing characters:  Achilles Schmidt, the whore-stricken double-amputee with the strength of a bear; Finnerty, the fast-talking pimp; Hallie, the prostitute with a secret hope. 

Algren's narrative voice --his wry tone and his humor, his dialog --reveal him to have been a student of Mark Twain.  And, just as with Twain, Algren provides deep wisdom, laced throughout the hilarity.  For example, the book is famous for this passage, which is the advice given to Dove Linkhorn by Country Kline as they both sit in Tank Ten in the local stir:
But blow wise to this, buddy, blow wise to this:  Never play cards with a man named Doc.  Never eat at a place called Mom's.  Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.  Never let nobody talk you into shaking another man's jolt.  And never you cop another man's plea.  I've tried 'em all and I know.  They don't work.
Today, A Walk on the Wild Side stands as an admonition against that most sanctimonious of American myths, capitalism.  The novel illustrates the human wreckage that is created when excesses of greed bring about calamity.  In 1956 Algren told how it had been --and perhaps how it may be again.

1 comment:

MJB said...

I recently finished Wild Side and found it enjoyable and thought-provoking, though not earth-shattering.  I tend to have an aversion to anything bordering on slapstick, so I think some of the physical comedy was a negative for me, but there were other parts that I did find very accurate - and therefore very amusing - in the way algren portrayed some dirty truths about the human condition and its darker possibilities.  The context you place the book in with your review adds to my appreciation of what Algren has accomplished, as well, so thanks for that.  You may well know this already but Lou Reed acknowledged the novel as inspiration for his song in the "Classic Albums" about his Transformer album.