By Curtis Price
Posted on June 11, 2021
The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren. Edited and with an introduction by Bettina Drew. University of Texas Press, 1995
In “Texas Stories,” Nelson Algren populates his hardscrabble vignettes with the flotsam and jetsam of Depression-era America; characters that drift obsessively across the desolate, windswept Texas landscape like so many sagebrushes tumbling down the gullies of a prairie ghost town.
But even though the tramps, loners, carnival hustlers, whores (not “sex workers”), illiterate Okies, and Mexican convicts on the run gathered in these 14 short stories and sketches written at different stages of Algren’s long career belong to an era long since passed, “Texas Stories” resonates with contemporary relevance.
This is because Algren, who died in 1981, blends a sharply-honed psychology with his trenchant social protest, avoiding cheap sentimentality by focusing as equally on the tragic-comic and grotesque aspects of his character’s motives as he does on the underlying economic and social wrongs that have sent them spinning to their fate.
At his best, in short stories like “Kewpie Doll,” the balance works powerfully. In “Kewpie Doll,” a mundane, descriptive account of a boisterous crowd of poverty-stricken rural townspeople pilfering a train for winter coal, yields sharply to a horrifying conclusion – the decapitation of a child lost in the crowd on the tracks as the train takes off, all the more tragic for its seeming randomness. (It’s a powerful, disturbing imagery that Algebra recycled in “Somebody in Boots,” if memory serves me right.)
Unlike most of the U.S. left, Nelson Algren wasn’t afraid to embrace the tragic sense of life, something the American South marinates in, and which finds its highest expression in the blues tradition as well as classic C&W such as Hank Williams. He scorned those who had “pink pills for social ills” (that could have been a line in a hip-hop track!), which explained why he was of the left without being in it. After a brief dalliance on the periphery of the CP in the 1930s, Algren never joined anything again, preferring to be the perpetual outsider who could speak the truth without stepping on the toes of tender, mawkish sensibilities and rigid, party-line orthodoxies common, respectively, to reformist and revolutionary milieus.
This hard-nosed social realism is a welcome contrast to the shallow “fully automated luxury communism” found in professional-managerial class circles in coastal elite cities, toxic waste-dumps of flatulent, campus-metastasized leftism, in which this layer stokes Twitter and social-media-fed recrudescence that is the polar opposite of genuine engagement.
Linking the Southern blues tradition to radical politics, with greasy overalls and dirt-under-fingernails, will be an ongoing subject that we will return to in future essays. In the meantime, it’s well-worth remembering one of Algren’s favorite quotes, from the Russian realist writer Alexander Kuprin: “The horror is that there is no horror.”