restricted access Confronting the Horror: The Novels of Nelson Algren, and: To Reach Eternity: The Letters of James Jones (review)
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Reviewed by
James R. Giles. Confronting the Horror: The Novels of Nelson Algren. Kent: Kent State UP, 1989. 132 pp. $21.00.
George Hendrick, ed. To Reach Eternity: The Letters of James Jones. New York: Random, 1989. Foreword by William Styron. 380 pp. $22.50.

Nelson Algren was born in Detroit and died on Long Island. Only two of his five novels deal with Chicago. Yet Algren's chosen setting, James Giles points out, has too easily been taken as Algren's defining characteristic: "Because of his grim descriptions of Chicago's Polish-American slums in Never Come Morning and The Man With the Golden Arm, he was commonly viewed as a Chicago novelist in the tradition of Dreiser and Richard Wright." In Confronting the Horror, Giles confronts this perception, ably pointing out the larger spheres to which Algren's fiction belongs.

Chicago is a setting for Algren's work, but it is more, a context. Algren's real setting is the "neon wilderness" of contemporary America. By focusing on urban slums—confining his narrative within cheap apartments, alleyways, jails, gambling dens, and red-light districts—he surrounds his characters with a suffocating, claustrophobic milieu. Here postwar absurdism, manifest in the way this environment twists American norms and values, meets traditional literary naturalism. "Algren's devotion to the lower depths is intended to challenge the reader in a way that the fiction of Norris and Dreiser could not. He was not concerned with anthropological explorations of internal colonies, but with shocking his middle-class readers into full recognition of the humanity of the outcast inhabitants of the lower depths."

Nor were naturalism and absurdism the only forces that shaped Algren's work. Maxim Gorky and Alexandre Kuprin, with their grim zest for exploring the sordid, are to be counted among the influences. The dread that afflicts Frankie Machine, the "weary contempt" of police officer Record Head Bedner, are best explained by terms which Sartre coined—and if Sartre maps out the philosophical setting of Algren's fiction, Louis-Ferdinand Céline provides much of its energy. Dove Linkhorn descends from Candide as well as Huckleberry Finn. And Algren's writing has clear ties to the literary generations that his career spanned. Somebody in Boots, his first novel, is marked by the Marxism of Thirties literature. (Only when he rewrote it, completely, did it become A Walk on the Wild Side. ) Who Lost An American?, published in 1963, and The Devil's Stocking, published posthumously twenty years later, recall Norman Mailer. In the first book, the narrator "Algren" is as much a character as "Mailer" in Armies of the Night, and the second draws on the Hurricane Carter murder prosecution much as The Executioner's Song factionalized the execution of Gary Gilmore.

If Algren has been relegated too quickly to the category of Chicago novelist, James Jones has been thought of for too long as the author of From Here to Eternity. The operative noun in that title found its way into the title of Frank MacShane's 1985 biography (Into Eternity: The Life of James Jones ), and now it furnishes the title for George Hendrick's collection of letters: To Reach Eternity: The Letters of James Jones. Jones's later works, particularly The Thin Red Line and Whistle, deserve more attention—but never mind the quibble. These letters, which Hendrick has done a careful job of editing, will play their part in establishing (or rehabilitating) Jones's reputation as a serious American writer. [End Page 266]

Early letters to Maxwell Perkins lay out the structure of Eternity, showing that there was a plan beneath the novel's visceral intensity. They also identify many of the real-life models for Jones's characters; conceivably it is not too late to interview the survivors of his old infantry unit.

The letters that deal with Eternity also mark Jones as a pushy newcomer to the world of letters. He constantly drops names—claiming influences, critiquing, disparaging. Perhaps the single surest sign of his ambition is that, virtually from the beginning, he made and kept carbon copies of his letters.

This assertiveness soon grows repetitious, but it is never safe to...


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