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A walk on the wild side by Nelson Algren

A walk on the wild side (1956)

by Nelson Algren

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5491030,327 (3.86)25
With its depictions of the downtrodden prostitutes, bootleggers, and hustlers of Perdido Street in the old French Quarter of 1930s New Orleans, A Walk in the Wild Side has found a place in the imaginations of all generations since it first appeared. As Algren admitted, the book "wasn't written until long after it had been walked . . . I found my way to the streets on the other side of the Southern Pacific station, where the big jukes were singing something called 'Walking the Wild Side of Life.' I've stayed pretty much on that side of the curb ever since." Perhaps the author's own words describe this classic work best: "The book asks why lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives. Why men who have suffered at the hands of other men are the natural believers in humanity, while those whose part has been simply to acquire, to take all and give nothing, are the most contemptuous of mankind."… (more)
Title:A walk on the wild side
Authors:Nelson Algren
Collections:Your library

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A Walk on the Wild Side: A Novel by Nelson Algren (1956)

  1. 00
    Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (WSB7)
    WSB7: Contrasting life of the down and out at the same period of time in New Orleans.

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» See also 25 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
An extremely gritty story of a Texas loser, and his excursion to New orleans, where like Odin, he learns the lessons of life, but pays a price. The characters are generally very unpleasant. If you are bored, you can read this book, but it has only one word of wisdom..."Never sleep with anyone who has worse troubles than you do." I can't say I liked anything else about the book. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Oct 12, 2019 |
A Walk on the Wild Side - a great title for a book, great title for a film and a great title for a song (Lou Reed), but the book came first and I wonder how many people have read it. Of course it takes longer to read the book than to watch the film, but the song you can listen to in just 4mins and twelve seconds, so why bother with the book? The clue is in the title “A Walk on the Wild Side” its catchy it has that marvellous alliteration that runs right through the text and it encourages the prospective reader that there might be danger here; a danger that can safely be negotiated from the safety of your armchair, or your seat in the doctors waiting room, or your bench in the bus shelter.

Published in 1956 a year before Jack Kerouac’s On the Road it covers the same territory in that it is a rejection of the illusion of ‘the American Dream’; it looks at the underbelly of America, those trapped in poverty, in crime, in prostitution in one of the big cities, all through the eyes of a young man with plenty of youthful energy who is not afraid to get his hands dirty to get what he wants. Unlike the Beat generation of the 1950’s, whose protagonists were looking for kicks, Algren’s book is set in the early 1930’s, the years that heralded the great depression, when people were scrambling to keep alive. Dove Linkhorn is the main character and we pick him up in Arroyo a town in Texas, his father scratches a living emptying cess pools and spends his free time, when not drinking, as an itinerant preacher on the steps of the court house. He sees no reason to be sending Dove to school and Dove gains his education by hanging out with the hobo’s near the railroad tracks and listening to their stories. The illiterate 16 year old gets a job at the local cantina and has a brief affair with the Mexican Lady owner, who kicks him out after catching him stealing from the cash register. After adventures with a female runaway he hops a freight train to N’wawlins (New Orleans) and arrives in town barefoot in blue jeans with just some change in his pocket. He gets a bed in a run down flop with two older men; Fort and Luke and learns how to make a dollar through conniving semi-criminal enterprises. Door to door selling leads him to Oliver Finnerty’s brothel where he gets his big break as a stud breaking in young girls to a life of prostitution. Styling himself as Big Stingaree he moves into the brothel, a police raid lands him in jail and when he gets out, his quest to learn to read leads him to an affair with one of the girls in the brothel and when he absconds with her, he leaves himself open to recriminations.

Algren reworked older material to put together A Walk on the Wild Side, but you wouldn’t know this from reading the novel as it flows logically forward, but with hind sight you can pick out the various pieces that make up the novel. Young Dove growing up in Arroyo, his life as a young hobo, his work for a couple manufacturing condoms in their bungalow home, his six months in jail, but the largest chunk of the book is based in Oliver Finnerty’s brothel and Dock Dockery’s speakeasy that provides the cover. Algren spends 40 odd pages describing the characters and their way of life before Dove arrives at it’s door. Kerouac and the Beats tended to give impressions of the seamy side of life usually through first hand impressions in a new cool style of writing. Algren is more intent in rubbing our noses in it. He wants us to be moved by what we see and he is not averse to step in under the guise of one of his characters to tell us just what is wrong with the system, he stops short of preaching against the evils of capitalism and the differences between the haves and the have nots, but he leaves the reader no doubt as to where he stands. Algren seems to me to be a link between the more melodramatic style of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and the cooler clipped style of the Beats, but what makes Algren special is his own way of writing, which is a good marriage of style and content. An example from an early section of the book when young Dove is drawn to the hobos out by the railroad tracks:

“Dove felt the uneasy guilt go round them like the perfumed glove; it too had made the circle of homeless men.
Their home was ten thousand water towers, their home was any tin-can circle. Their home was down all lawless deeps where buffalo coloured box cars make their last stand in the West.
He saw their night fires burn and burn against the homeless heart, and felt he himself had gone West. That it had come to nothing then, and yet that he would go again.
Someone had done some cheating all right.”

Repetition, alliteration and word sound are as important as content, along with well used idioms that together give unique atmosphere to the scene, but there is more; there is social comment running all through this paragraph ending with “Someone had done some cheating all right” There are other stunning paragraphs and purple patches of writing throughout the novel, but Algren never loses sight of the tawdry meanness of some of his characters and their society. There is plenty of dialogue which Algren uses to highlight the social world of his character, they speak in homilies, they exaggerate, however they don’t often swear and sometimes the word play is a little too clever.

The dollar is king in Algren’s America; almost the first thing that characters say to each other when meeting is ‘Making any Money’. The richest, strongest and most unscrupulous are the ones that survive the hard times and they bear down on the weakest, their is little room for sentiment, but there is room for love and this can make people act out of character although coercion and force is the most usual method of operation. Algren’s world is an unedifying sight, but the way he manages to wrap it up in some inventive and radiant writing makes this a novel well worth reading. Five stars from me ( )
3 vote baswood | Dec 19, 2017 |
A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE, by one of the most outstanding novelists of the 20th century, Nelson Algren, is another amazing example of his inimitable style. Here he follows illiterate Dove, a teenager from an outback town, to depression-era Louisiana (last century’s depression, not the current one). He ends up on Perdido Street, a part of New Orleans where prostitutes, the disabled, drunks, and cons mingled.
This is a critique on the unfairness of the wealth distribution in this country which continues to this day. A time of “Self-reliance for the penniless and government aid for those who already had more than they could use..."
Algren’s style in this book is fabulous, sometimes sing-song rhyme, sometimes slow and wistful, with a southern drawl. “To this lopsided shambles owned by this unlicensed ghost, this speakeasy spook who had been alive once but died in the crash and was now only haunting the thirties, came trudging, some uphill and some down, all those who could not admit that the money was spent, the dream was over; the magic done. They still wore the clothes they wore before 1929 and no one knew when they might buy clothes again.”
Sometimes Dove isn’t even aware how miserable his situation is. After all, it’s all he knows.
“…when he saw men encircling someone or something down the street he hurried there as fast as his butter-colored shoes could make steps…
…a little round man with something glistening in his hand. Dove elbowed in to see what glistened so nicely.
A cawfee pot.
Hello, pot.
Shor a purty old pot.
“Wreneger’s the name,” the little round man was telling his crew, “but you can call me plain old ‘Smiley”…”
Little old red ’n green cawfee pot. Well I be dawg. Bet you make right good cawfee.
“The idea aint to see how many doors you can rap of a morning-THAT aint sellin’…”
I had me a cawfee pot like you, cawfee pot, I’d know where to get the chicory for you.
”Heed the housewife’s woes, boys. Give ear to her trials and little cares. Make her joys your joys, her tears your tears…sooner or later she’s going to ask ‘Young man, whatever is that contraption in your hand?’”
“Look like a cawfee pot to me,” Dove helped the man out.
“Thank you, Red. You work with me…”

A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE examines exceptionally well the existence of some of the truly poor during the early 1930’s and I recommend it highly.
( )
  BooksOn23rd | Nov 25, 2015 |
Nelson Algren's own words describe this book best.

The book asks why lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives. Why men who have suffered at the hands of other men are the natural believers in humanity, while those whose part has been simply to acquire, to take all and give nothing, are the most contemptuous of mankind."

A Walk on the Wild Side is a story about the lost and lonely men and women of Perdido Street in 1930s New Orleans. It is a stark and often poignant portrayal of the lives of society's down and out, losers and has-beens, lived out in the streets, cheap hotels, dingy bars, and brothels of this city. Dove Linkhorn, 16-years old, son of an itinerant preacher, is recently arrived, with big dreams of easy money and a good life. Dove is willing to work hard, and he is willing to try his hand at anything. He knew that his youth and his muscles are his strength, but his illiteracy was a liability. So he does what he could to learn to read. Among pimps, whores, con-men and suchlike, he got his education, and it didn't end in reading. Dove gets in and out of scrapes, and gets to understand many things. Life was tough, people were hard-bitten, disillusioned, and there was plenty to be angry about. Little acts of compassion, of sympathy, of loyalty, however, shine through their shared misery, and once in a while, a courageous soul emerges who reminds them of their pride of themselves, and unspoken dreams.

Algren does not idealize poverty or glorify these miserable characters, none does extraordinary things, neither does anybody overcome their miserable existence, but they are more real and the more human for it. The story is a series of small dramas, and Algren sometimes tends toward the melodramatic. But Algren's writing is wonderful and has a melancholic ring to it, he uses lyrics of songs to good effect in setting the mood. In his words, we almost hear the sound of music and songs which happen to be playing or being sung, almost always heard through the open door as Dove walks by. Where he came from, it was always a church door. Here in New Orleans, it would be a jukebox.

A good read, and a vivid reminder that the misery portrayed in this novel is a situation that is again being felt in many parts of the US and Europe. Algren was not describing a world very different from what we are faced with these days -- high unemployment, migration, aggressive door-to-door marketing, more and more homeless, the amount of sales posters we see on walls or notices pushed under our doors -- they also characterized Dove's New Orleans then. It is sobering to see the similarities. ( )
6 vote deebee1 | Jan 14, 2013 |
Algren's gritty compassion is as exciting -- or taedious, according to one's lights -- as Algren's own life- history. Even as a young man I found that a little of his fiction went a long way, and I don't honestly feel much more positive now. A classic case of suum cuique. ( )
  HarryMacDonald | Dec 13, 2012 |
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» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Nelson Algrenprimary authorall editionscalculated
Banks, RussellForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Campos, VicenteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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