When Lou Reed referenced Nelson Algren’s 1957 novel, A Walk on the Wild Side, he borrowed more than the title.
Like Algren, Reed created lyrical portraits of people whose life was all about the next hustle. Algren painted a picture of lost souls in 1930’s New Orleans, Reed, those of 1970’s New York. Reed’s lines about transvestites and giving head are no more shocking than Algren’s condom-creating ‘wulcanized woman’ and no less depressing than his character Old Dockery’s ‘hundred dolls’.What they also have in common is a way of making the seedier side of life sound romantic by using a poetic narrative.
When Sakura chose Algren’s novel for our monthly book group (her thoughts are here by the way),I was surprised at how I’d never heard of this book that has been considered modern classic. While I was easily able to get myself a scruffy 1st edition on eBay for a few quid, I noticed it wasn’t exactly a best seller on Amazon or widely in print. What has caused A Walk on the Wild Side to fall out of favour? Published in the 50’s, this story of hapless hookers and the hopeless fortune-seeking hick Dove Linkhorn must have pushed the boundaries of good-taste and even now is quite shocking. It’s a really vivid snapshot of what life could have been like for people on the edge of society and explores themes of racism and class with some eloquence – the American dream turned inside-out where lonely wanderers struggle to make their way but without family or sufficient education are doomed to fail.
At the French Market, Dove, one of the key characters in the novel, watches turtles being killed for soup:
“When his eyes had got used to the deep-sea light he discerned a Negro the size of Carnera, naked to the waist and shining with iron-coloured sweat, decapitating snapping turtles with silvered precision.”
He watches one headless turtle, desperate to make it to the top of the pile finally make it and then skid straight back down in a bloody mess. Even for the luckiest characters in the book life is the same – a blind struggle and an easy descent.
Although the themes of the novel strike a blue note, Algren’s writing is darkly comic with scenes such as the one where Mama Floralee chases a naval officer around to indulge his repressed desire towards his childhood maid – a passage both tragic and funny.
One member of our group commented that it could be that the style of the book, has helped it to become more obscure in what is arguably a time of more plot-driven novels. In 350 odd pages A Walk on the Wild Side explores a multitude of characters, which can be disorientating. It isn’t structured in a neat and orderly way and this rather mirrors the haphazard lives of those featured in it. However, although A Walk on the Wild Side took a little bit of getting into, I’m really pleased that I read it. The indulgent use of metaphor and occasionally distracting diversions into the past of different characters was at times confusing but the use of language is inventive, quite beautiful in fact – and the characters were described in fascinating detail.
A Walk on the Wild Side is one to read you’re not in a rush and want to read the grittier version of the American Dream.
Am I the only person that hasn’t heard of Algren? Have you come across his writing before or read any of his novels?