This definitive biography reclaims Nelson Algren as a towering literary figure and finally unravels the enigma of his disappearance from American letters.
For a time, Nelson Algren was America’s most famous author, lauded by the likes of Richard Wright and Ernest Hemingway. Millions bought his books. Algren’s third novel, The Man with the Golden Arm, won the first National Book Award, and Frank Sinatra starred in the movie. But despite Algren’s talent, he abandoned fiction and fell into obscurity. The cause of his decline was never clear. Some said he drank his talent away; others cited writer’s block. The truth, hidden in the pages of his books, is far more complicated and tragic. Now, almost forty years after Algren’s death, Colin Asher finally captures the full, novelistic story of his life in a magisterial biography set against mid-twentieth-century American politics and culture.
Drawing from interviews, archival correspondence, and the most complete version of Algren’s 886-page FBI file ever released, Colin Asher portrays Algren as a dramatic iconoclast. A member of the Communist Party in the 1930s, Algren used his writing to humanize Chicago’s underclass, while excoriating the conservative radicalism of the McCarthy era. Asher traces Algren’s development as a thinker, his close friendship and falling out with Richard Wright, and his famous affair with Simone de Beauvoir. Most intriguingly, Asher uncovers the true cause of Algren’s artistic exile: a reckless creative decision that led to increased FBI scrutiny and may have caused a mental breakdown.
In his second act, Algren was a vexing figure who hid behind a cynical facade. He called himself a “journalist” and a “loser,” though many still considered him one of the greatest living American authors. An inspiration to writers such as Hunter S. Thompson, Martha Gellhorn, Jimmy Breslin, Betty Friedan, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Russell Banks, and Thomas Pynchon, Algren nevertheless struggled to achieve recognition, and died just as his career was on the verge of experiencing a renaissance.
Never a Lovely So Real offers an exquisitely detailed, engrossing portrait of a master who, as esteemed literary critic Maxwell Geismar wrote, was capable of suggesting “the whole contour of a human life in a few terse pages.”
Colin Asher is an award-winning writer whose work has been featured in the Believer, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle. An instructor at CUNY, he was a 2015/2016 Fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography.
Table of Contents
I Becoming Someone is a Solitary Process
The Story of Isaac 3
Between St. Columbanus and the Wrought-Iron Gale of Oak Woods Cemetery 18
"Tell Your Tire Troubles to Nelson Abraham" 35
Stoic. Academic. Ink-Stained Wretch. 47
The Past Receded Like a Wave Just Spent 58
"So Help Me" 77
"What Is a Carpenter without His Tools?" 93
Somebody in Boots 98
The Crack Up 115
II The Chicago School
Two Forlorn Children 125
Trotskyists, Council Communists, and Mattickites 132
At Home in Rat Alley 144
"Do It the Hard Way" 186
The Anonymous Man 192
III Every Day is D-Day Under the EL
Exploring the Neon Wilderness 207
A Boy from the Provinces 223
"OK, Kid, You Beat Dostoyevsky" 266
"How Long Docs This Sort of Thing Go On?" 286
"Riding Day-Coaches to Nowhere" 323
"They Don't Exactly Give Me Any Medals for Caution" 343