Mini book review: ‘The Neon Wilderness,’ by Nelson Algreen

by Patty Templeton

Nelson Algren is best known for his 1940 National Book Award-winner “The Man with the Golden Arm.” It’s a dark look at post-WWII veterans and morphine addiction that was made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra. It’s a dang fine book, but anyone new to Algren should start with his collection of short story collection, “The Neon Wilderness.”

“Actually, they fought to fill the emptiness of their lives as they filled their empty glasses. They fought – not because the liquor was in them, but because it did not fill them enough.” SERIOUSLY? Gut me now, Algren, you god of digging deep and shoveling out in a way anyone can relate to. It may have been pubbed in 1956, but “The Neon Wilderness” still holds power today through its spot-on slang and sincere portraits of working class people. It’s a love song to the down-and-out, and a focus on folks who feel left behind. Algren has an obvious adoration for Chicago. Loving Chicago, he says, is, “like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”

If you dig on hash poetics or authors like John Fante, Studs Terkel, and Charles Bukowski, absolutely give “The Neon Wilderness” a try.

— Patty Templeton


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