Книга: The Man with the Golden Arm
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Algren as I knew himby Kurt Vonnegut

According to the diary of my wife Jill Krementz, the photographer, the young British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie came to our house in Sagaponack, Long Island, for lunch on May 9th, 1981. His excellent novel Midnight’s Children had just been published in the United States, and he told us that the most intelligent review had been written by Nelson Algren, a man he would like to meet. I replied that we knew Algren some, since Jill had photographed him several times and he and I had been teachers at the Writers’ Workshop of the University of Iowa back in 1965, when we were both dead broke and I was forty-three and he was fifty-six.
I said, too, that Algren was one of the few writers I knew who was really funny in conversation. I offered as a sample what Algren said at the Workshop after I introduced him to the Chilean novelist José Donoso: ‘I think it would be nice to come from a country that long and narrow.’
Rushdie was really in luck, I went on, because Algren lived only a few miles to the north, in Sag Harbor, where John Steinbeck had spent the last of his days, and he was giving a cocktail party that very afternoon. I would call him and tell him we were bringing Rushdie along, and Jill would take pictures of the two of them together, both writers about people who were very poor. I suggested that the party might be the only one that Algren had given himself in his entire life, since, no matter how famous he became, he remained a poor man living among the poor, and usually alone. He was living alone in Sag Harbor. He had had a new wife in Iowa City, but that marriage lived about as long as a Junebug. His enthusiasm for writing, reading and gambling left little time for the duties of a married man.
I said that Algren was bitter about how little he had been paid over the years for such important work, and especially for the movie rights to what may be his masterpiece, The Man with the Golden Arm, which made huge amounts of money as a Frank Sinatra film. Not a scrap of the profits had come to him, and I heard him say one time, ‘I am the penny whistle of American literature.’
When we got up from lunch, I went to the phone and dialed Nelson Algren’s number. A man answered and said, ‘Sag Harbor Police Department.’
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Wrong number.’
‘Who were you calling?’ he said.
‘Nelson Algren,’ I said.
‘This is his house,’ he said, ‘but Mr. Algren is dead.’ A heart attack that morning had killed Algren at the age of seventy-two.
He is buried in Sag Harbor – without a widow or descendants, hundreds and hundreds of miles from Chicago, Illinois, which had given him to the world and with whose underbelly he had been so long identified. Like James Joyce, he had become an exile from his homeland after writing that his neighbors were perhaps not as noble and intelligent and kindly as they liked to think they were.
Only a few weeks before his death, he had been elected by his supposed peers, myself among them, to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters – a certification of respectability withheld from many wonderful writers, incidentally, including James Jones and Irwin Shaw. This was surely not the first significant honor ever accorded him. When he was at the peak of his powers and fame in the middle of this century, he regularly won prizes for short stories and was the first recipient of a National Book Award for Fiction, and so on. And only a few years before his death the American Academy and Institute had given him its Medal for Literature, without, however, making him a member. Among the few persons to win this medal were the likes of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.
His response to the medal had been impudent. He was still living in Chicago, and I myself talked to him on the telephone, begging him to come to New York City to get it at a big ceremony, with all expenses paid. His final statement on the subject to me was this: ‘I’m sorry, but I have to speak at a ladies’ garden club that day.’
At the cocktail party whose prospects may have killed him, I had hoped to ask him if membership in the American Academy and Institute had pleased him more that the medal. Other friends of his have since told me the membership had moved him tremendously, and had probably given him the nerve to throw a party. As to how the seeming insult of a medal without a membership had ever taken shape: this was nothing but a clumsy clerical accident caused by the awarders of prizes and memberships, writers as lazy and absentminded and idiosyncratic in such matters as Algren himself.
God knows how it happened. But all’s well that ends well, as the poet said.
Another thing I heard from others, but never from Algren himself, was how much he hoped to be remembered after he was gone. It was always women who spoke so warmly of this. If it turned out that he head never mentioned the possibility of his own immortality to any man, that would seem in character. When I saw him with men, he behaved as though he wanted nothing more from life than a night at the fights, a day at the track, or a table-stakes poker game. This was a pose, of course, and perceived as such by one and all. It was also perceived back in Iowa City that he was a steady and heavy loser at gambling, and that his writing was not going well. He head already produced so much, most of it in the mood of the Great Depression, which had become ancient history. He appeared to want to modernize himself somehow. What was my evidence? There he was, a master storyteller, blasted beyond all reason with admiration for and envy of a moderately innovative crime story then appearing in serial form in the New Yorker, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. For a while in Iowa, he could talk of little else.
While he was only thirteen years my senior, so close to my own age that we were enlisted men in Europe in the same World War, he was a pioneering ancestor of mine in the compressed history of American literature. He broke new ground by depicting persons said to be dehumanized by poverty and ignorance and injustice as being genuinely dehumanized, and dehumanized quite permanently. Contrast, if you will, the poor people in this book with those in the works of social reformers like Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw, and particularly with those in Shaw’s Pygmalion, with their very promising wit and resourcefulness and courage. Reporting on what he saw of dehumanized Americans with his own eyes day after day, year after year, Algren said in effect, ‘Hey – an awful lot of these people your hearts are bleeding for are really mean and stupid. That’s just a fact. Did you know that?’
And why didn’t he soften his stories, as most writers would have, with characters with a little wisdom and power who did all they could to help the dehumanized? His penchant for truth again shoved him in the direction of unpopularity. Altruists in his experience were about as common as unicorns, and especially in Chicago, which he once described to me as ‘the only major city in the country where you can easily buy your way out of a murder rap.’
So – was there anything he expected to accomplish with so much dismaying truthfulness? He gives the answer himself, I think, in his preface to another novel, Never Come Morning. As I understand him, he would be satisfied were we to agree with him that persons unlucky and poor and not very bright are to be respected for surviving, although they often have no choice but to do so in ways unattractive and blameworthy to those who are a lot better off.
It seems to me now that Algren’s pessimism about so much of earthly life was Christian. Like Christ, as we know Him from the Bible, he was enchanted by the hopeless; could not take his eyes off them, and could see little good news for them in the future, given what they had become and what Caesar was like and so on, unless beyond death there awaited something more humane.
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