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blog — December 14

June, 2009—Racing toward Youngstown, Ohio, with Frank Mears, Blackie Cavanaugh, and Little Lester

by Colin Asher

I graduated from college when I was twenty eight years old. It was the spring of 2009, and I thought my life was about to improve dramatically. I had been working full-time, with only minor interruptions, since I dropped out of high school thirteen years earlier, and I believed I was about to begin a proper career—a prospect that appealed to me more for the respect it implied than the money it might bring. It was my great desire to have important people meet my gaze and acknowledge me as a peer, and I thought becoming a journalist was the best way to accomplish that goal. I was wrong.

That was a bleak year—similar to the one we just lived through, but distinct in its specifics. The Great Recession had almost reached its nadir, and nine million people were newly unemployed. Ten million homes had been foreclosed on since the recession began, and the major stock indexes were all reporting losses close to fifty percent. The crisis had identifiable causes, and clearly recognizable villains, but no one was being held to account for their crimes, and every day it seemed less likely they ever would be.

It was a confusing time, and my future, like the country’s was uncertain. I finally had a degree after years of taking night classes at a city college, and then a few very expensive semesters at a private university—but I also had fewer prospects than ever before. I had applied to about two dozen reporting jobs since winter, and rejection notices had been arriving steadily since. The only offer I received came from the Christian Science Monitor. They told me I could work for them for six months if I was willing to do so for free. I could never afford that so I turned it down, but even their insult felt like a gift. That’s how bad things were.     

My best friend’s future looked no more promising at the time. His name is Makis, and he had dropped out of NYU when he was young, spent several years working at a gas station, and then earned a degree at a state college and graduated from law school. It was his ambition to become a public defender in Boston, his adopted home town, and everyone said he was born for the role. He is burly, gruff, and pugnacious—a crime noir version of Atticus Finch. He chain smokes, and  has a clenched black fist shattering a chain tattooed on his forearm. He had entertained no doubts about his chosen career for years, but lately his confidence seemed misplaced. The Massachusetts state budget had just been decimated, and there was no guarantee the public defender’s office would be hiring anytime soon.

Makis and I both felt adrift and dispirited. We had no idea what the future held for us, or how to protect ourselves from the great forces that were wreaking havoc on our well-laid plans, so we decided to disappear for a while—to get away from the city, and our friends, and our worries.

Our plan was simple. We were going to drive west from Boston until we reached Youngstown, Ohio, and stop in as many Rust Belt cities as we could along the way. The country was going to hell, and so were our lives, and we thought exploring a region that that had been brought low by earlier crises and never recovered was the best way to understand what was happening, and what was coming next.

So we rented a four-door Hyundai, and went shopping. We bought two bottles of rum, one bottle of vodka, sodas to use as mixers, bread, cheese, and cigarettes. Then we packed the car, and said our goodbyes—him to his wife, and me to the woman I would marry five years later.

We started driving early on a Friday afternoon. Our spirits were high, so we turned up the stereo, poured liquor from our flasks into plastic soda bottles, and drank, and drove, and watched the landscape empty. We saw cars and buildings packed together densely—then strip malls and office parks, fields and woods, trucks stops, and FOR SALE signs stuck in the ground in front of abandoned homes.    

           

***

I had many preoccupations that year: My debt was growing every day. It was a struggle to bring in enough money for rent and food. I was beginning to think I would never find a respectable job. But those burdens were familiar, so I carried them lightly. It seems odd thinking back on it now, but the one subject that reliably sent me into a sputtering rage that spring was the state of American literature.   

Journalism had responded to the recession admirably, despite its weakened state. Its most venerable institutions had dispatched reporters to write investigate stories, and features that shed light on the human cost of the economic downturn. Historians were busy explaining the precedents for the crisis, and political scientists were calling attention to the legislative choices that made it possible. Films were being written and cast, and the Democrats were promising—for the moment, at least—that they were going to take power away from the bankers and stock traders who had been gaming the system for the past twenty years.

But the world of American literature seemed willfully unmoved by the generation-defining events that were unfolding. That year, like most years, it was possible to read the best-reviewed literary novels, and the best-received stories, and come away with the impression that America was a country of professors, students, and eccentric recent graduates. A place filled with exceptionally erudite people (mostly men, and mostly white) who had attended well-regarded colleges, and spent their waking hours searching for meaning in their lives—a nation of writers, aspiring writers, failed writers.            

I had been waiting for some talented author to begin mining the Great Recession for material since it began, but no one had. I wanted to read about lives like my own, and people I could identify with—single working mothers, fatherless children, waitresses, welfare cases, petty criminals, and dropouts with outsized dreams. But the country’s literary writers seemed intent on writing books designed to be read only by people who were themselves writing books.

Ranting about that dynamic was a regular and, I suspect, tiresome feature of my conversation for more than a year before someone stopped me with a question. “Have you read Nelson Algren?” they asked.

I had not. I had never even heard the name. “He wrote that great line about loving a woman with a broken nose,” they continued. “I think it was: ‘Loving Chicago is like loving a woman with a broken nose.’”

That was enticement enough for me, so I visited a book store and browsed among the A’s. The only Algren book on the shelf was Entrapment and Other Writings, so I bought it. When I got home, I tossed it on my desk and forgot about it. It sat there for days, or maybe a week. Then it was time to pack for my road trip. I noticed the book as I was filling my duffel bag, and grabbed it, and tossed it on top of a stack of t-shirts and jeans.  

           

***

Makis and I were somewhere outside Chicopee, MA, when I reached into the back seat of our Hyundai and groped for the book. We had been on the road for maybe two hours, and the air inside the car was thick with the sound of our tires humming over US 90, music, and smoke from Makis’ cigarettes. We were drunk, and getting drunker.

I opened the book and began reading while Makis drove, and within pages I felt sober and focused. I had selected Entrapment at random, but even if I had spent months conducting research before I made a purchase it would not have been possible for me to find a text better suited to our trip, or the moment in history we were living through. The book contains stories and poems from every phase of Algren’s career. The earliest were written during the Great Depression. The last were composed around the time Reagan was elected. And every one of them seemed to have something to say about the present.  

After a few minutes, I turned down the music and got Makis’ attention. I felt like someone had just whispered a secret in my ear, and I had to share it.  

“The highways of America are white with summer now,” I read aloud as we barreled past foreclosed homes and empty storefronts, “and through the dust go the homeless. Till one thinks of America as a long dusty road leading to nowhere. The road curves by the wharves of New Orleans, where merchant ships wait high in dry-dock; past the freight yards in Council Bluffs, where the box-cars rot on the sidings. This is America, the vast heart of her, with grey boy-faces pressed to the cold blue bars.”

Algren wrote that passage in 1935, when he was twenty-six-years old, but it felt more urgent than anything written in the past year. Anything I had read, at least.

I began rambling through the book then, skimming, and then reading aloud when I came across something Makis needed to hear.

Listen to this poem, I said.

  

   “I was just another helpless victim of the depression,”

Explained the man who had used hard times like a knife, to cut             

   wages to the bone.

“I went down with my ship because I had too much faith in my    

   country,”

Said the man who had scuttled the ship, then deserted it before the  

   others aboard even knew,

And had never had faith in anything save a personal savings

   account.

           

Algren’s prose struck each of us. Its resonance was eerie, and undeniable. And it was addictive. It wasn’t fussy or pretentious, but it didn’t pander either. Most of his stories didn’t have plots, but that didn’t matter. They were closely observed, and insightful. They moved with a beguiling rhythm, and I could tell they were the product of both experience and labor. The dialog was so good and so true that the book would have been worth reading if it contained nothing else.     

We were planning to take our first break in Albany, NY, and we still had about an hour of road ahead of us, so I continued skipping back and forth through Algren’s career.

One short story I read that afternoon contained a scene that could have unfolded in a court room the same day, or a few years earlier when the opioid epidemic first took hold. It begins with a judge questioning a sixteen-year-old addict. “What do you do all day?” He asks, and the boy answers: “‘I lean, just lean. I find a hallway or washroom ‘n take a shot. Then I lean. Lean ‘n dream.’”  

Another, set in a prison, made me feel horribly inadequate. I was interested in reporting on criminal justice issues and mass incarceration, and Algren’s writing revealed a level of familiarity with those issues that exceeded my own, and would take years to acquire. In one paragraph that appears midway through the book, he captures the discursive conversational style of a group of prisoners, and the contours of their lives, all in about fifty words. “These were the ones who talked in terms of police administrations,” it reads, “and remembered in terms of police cars: ‘That was the year they had the black Cadillacs with the bell on the side—no, it was when they had the yellow Buicks with the swivel-spot—or was it the year of the orange Fords?’”   

Makis and I reached Albany before sunset, and found a bar. We drank a few, and set off again—west along US 20 at first, then aimlessly along a state highway looking for somewhere to sleep.  

The road was narrow, and dark, and poorly paved. Mail boxes and mile markers flashed into view when our headlights splayed across them, then disappeared. Porch lights appeared in the distance, then faded. Cars careened toward us on the other side of the broken yellow line, passed in a blur, and left us alone in the pitch night sky. For a stretch of time we saw nothing at all, and then, somewhere north of Auburn, we spotted lights at the end of a long driveway.

We pulled off the road when we reached it, and parked in front of Dilaj’s Motor Inn. We paid fifty dollars for a room with a plywood door, and then we dropped our bags on the pair of single beds inside and went downstairs to the bar. We bought a pair of drinks for $2.75 a piece, and after we drained them Makis went outside and smoked with the hotel’s owner.

I stayed at the bar, scribbling in a notebook. I hadn’t been planning to write anything about our trip, not necessarily, but I felt compelled to after reading Algren’s work. I wanted to capture the moment the way I imagined he would—intimately, not from a journalistic remove—so I made a record of everything happening in the room, and everything we had seen earlier in the day: the bar’s wallpaper, and the music playing on the stereo; the voices of the people seated near me, and the bits of their conversations I could overhear; the necklace the bar’s owner was wearing, the price of drinks, everyone we spoke to in Albany, and all the empty homes we had seen along the side of the road.      

Entrapment had made the day’s events, and my own life, seem like legitimate literary subjects. The characters in its pages were called Frank Mears, and Blackie Cavanaugh, and Little Lester, but when I read about them I felt I was reading about old friends. They were the kids I had played with in the abandoned lot behind my apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as a child; men I knocked around with on street corners, gyms, and bars; my old friend Bones, an alcoholic who looked after me when I became a bicycle messenger at seventeen, and then hung himself from a pipe running along the ceiling of his basement apartment.

Even I had begun to feel my complaints about American literature were overwrought by the time Makis and I left Boston earlier that day. Other people, I knew, had greater cause to complain about feeling culturally marginalized. And the country was falling apart, so it seemed ridiculous that I kept ranting about the self-indulgence of the literary set. But Entrapment validated my complaints, and granted me agency. It expanded the boundaries of literature, as I understood them, and gave me permission to think of my own story, and those of the men and women around me, as part of a broad and complicated American epic. 

Before then, I had believed the creation of culture was a secondary concern—neither trivial, nor essential. But when I felt the power that comes from recognizing oneself in a work of art, I realized that it is as necessary as food or shelter—the one thing that separates humans from all other beasts. And I began to understand that the sense of isolation a person feels when they do not see themselves reflected in the world of music, and art, and letters, is born of the knowledge that their humanity has been denied.  

That insight germinated for years before it took form. But its seed was planted that night. It was a gift—from Algren, to me.

***

Makis and I pulled out of Dilaj’s driveway the next morning and continued driving—past children peddling down the driveways of single story homes set alongside roads few people drove, and pastures, and VFW Halls, and rusted trucks with weeds growing around their wheels.

I continued reading as we rolled west, and as I did, Algren’s prose—thick, poetic, intimate, and ambitious—both reflected the world we were racing through, and began to define it.

We listened to the news on the radio and heard that corporate titans were firing workers by the hundreds even though their companies were still profitable—and we remembered Algren’s “helpless” victims of the depression. We drove on US 20 until it felt like Algren’s “one long road going nowhere,” and everyone we met reminded us of his people.  

“They had lived with a bottle of Chianti between them,” I read, “the scent hanging like a purple veil…”

And I thought about a couple we exchanged pleasantries with in Albany. He had a colostomy bag strapped to his ankle that was just visible below the cuff of his pants. She was wearing threadbare jean shorts, sitting on the edge of his walker, and leaning over a pair of drinks to bring her face closer to his.

In another story, a man walks into an unfamiliar bar and a woman notes his entrance. “She looked up,” I read. “A dark woman with a tarnished dime-store locket dangling lopsidedly down her throat into the hollow between her breasts. Looking at him steadily and with no word, she snapped the locket open. Katz saw, within a tiny mirror there, his own reflection, scarred by years of furtive living in rented rooms and secret corners.”

And I remembered a scene from the night before. A man had walked into Dilaj’s just after we did. He arrived on a motorcycle alone, and sat at the bar next to a woman. He spoke to her tentatively at first, then with confidence. He wore a handlebar mustache. She wore her brown hair long, and laughed easily. He spoke in a voice that sounded like honey and gravel for an hour or more, and then he rented a room and they went upstairs together.

Makis kept us moving while I read. He drove fast and drunk, and we made good time though we had no cause to rush. We entered Erie, PA, and stayed for an afternoon. We spent a night in Cleveland, and then we perused northern Ohio’s back roads.

We made Youngstown on our fourth day on the road, and checked into a hotel. Then we explored the city on foot. We wandered through overgrown parks and past abandoned hotels on Main Street. We gaped at the city’s ruin.

That night we drank at a bar called the Cedar Lounge, and by the time we left Ohio the next morning I was a changed man. I say that with no hint of sarcasm.

I had accepted an offer from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism before we left Boston, but done so reluctantly. It was a cynical move. I agreed to attend because I had no job offers, and I knew I could continue to take out loans if I stayed in school. But Algren’s work had given me purpose, and I was already beginning to think about my time at Columbia as an opportunity. I wanted to write about the world the way Algren had—honestly, provocatively, without fear of offending, and with no regard for the acceptability of my subject. Anger would fuel my prose, but lyricism would propel it. Fiction didn’t play to my strengths so it didn’t interest me, but literary nonfiction did and I was hoping Columbia could help me with that.

When Makis and I returned home, I wrote an essay about our trip. I never mentioned Algren in it, and couldn’t come close to matching his talent, but that piece will always be linked to him in my mind. His work compelled me to write it, and it was his approval I wanted to earn with its composition.

           

***

Years passed. I finished graduate school, and found a job, and had a son, and continued writing—but my identification with Algren’s work never waned. I read every one of his books, and though I rarely met the standard he set I kept trying.

Eventually, belatedly, I discovered Algren’s novels and stories are not well regarded. Critics say his characters are freaks—something that had never occurred to me. They call them “stumblebums.” They say Algren could have been one of The Greats if only he had written about the suburbs or the universities. Their dismissal felt like a personal slight, and their ignorance offended me.

Algren had been dead for decades, but I felt the need to defend him against his accusers, so I wrote an essay about his life and his writing. In it, I argued that his people are as much a part of the American story as Bellow’s or Hemingway’s or Yates’s. The Believer printed it, and afterward a publisher asked if I was interested in writing Algren’s biography. I was.

Completing the manuscript for that book consumed more than three years of my life, and the editing process is scheduled to last several more months, but I haven’t regretted taking on the project even once because Algren’s writings, ideas, and life story, feel more important now than they did when I discovered them.

As I learned through my research, Algren spent his entire career writing compassionately about people most writers wouldn’t look at. He argued, repeatedly, that anyone  who wanted to consider themselves an author needed to  be willing to sacrifice their career in the service of truth telling—and he did so himself. He maintained that artists and writers can only understand the moral texture of their societies by acknowledging the humanity of the people who occupy their lowest strata, remaining in touch with them, and reckoning with the condition of their lives—and in the wake of a presidential election that hinged on unacknowledged racism, unrecognized desperation, and resentment of a  sanctimonious cultural and political elite, his pronouncements seem more prophetic every day.

The writer’s job, Algren once wrote, is to put down the “world of reality” by working “without haste, as the story grows within, regardless of all social and moral ideas, regardless of whom your report may please or offend, regardless of whether the critics stand up and cheer for a month or take hammer and tongs after you, or simply ignore you—regardless of all forms, of all institutions, of all set ways of conduct and thought. Regardless, chiefly, of what the writer himself prefers to believe, know, think or feel.”

I believe “that a thinker who wants to think justly must keep in touch with those who never think at all,” he said later. “There is no better way of recording the American saga than to study it from behind its billboards and comic strips, which tend to dwell more upon the American dream than upon the American reality.”       

And maybe most poignantly, he proclaimed: We can’t understand what’s “happening to ourselves” unless we understand what is happening to the people who share “all the horrors but none of the privileges of our civilization.”     

Colin Asher is the recipient of a biography fellowship from the Leon Levy Center for Biography, and a fellowship in nonfiction literature from the New York Foundation for the Arts. His biography of Nelson Algren is forthcoming from W.W. Norton. He does not use social media, but he enjoys correspondence. He can be reached at Colin.Asher at Gmail.