By Ray Schultz
Poor Nelson Algren. A new bar, the Neon Wilderness, has opened in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. But it can’t be like the ones Algren hung out in when he lived there, nor can it reflect the ethos behind the name.
The Neon Wilderness is the title of Algren’s 1947 short story collection. His third book, it mostly focused on the desperate lives of the people who inhabited the area around Milwaukee Ave. and Division.
Among its 24 stories was “The Captain has bad dreams, or who put the sodium amytal in the hill & hill?”, a harrowing yet often funny account of a police lineup. This scene prefigured a similar one in The Man with the Golden Arm, Algren’s 1949 novel, which won the first National Book Award and was the basis of the movie starring Frank Sinatra (that Algren hated).
Algren turned another story in the volume, “The Face on the Barroom Floor,” into the climactic episode of A Walk On the Wild Side, his 1956 novel and the seed of yet another bad movie. And one of the earlier pieces in the collection, “A Bottle Of Milk for Mother,” was the foundation of Never Come Morning, Algren’s 1942 novel that sold over one million copies in paperback.
Perhaps the best story is “Design For Departure,” a novella unto itself, which described how a damaged woman lived in that era before gentrification—“in one of those great city caverns which are halfway between a rooming house and a cheap hotel. Every door has a number; and no one knows anyone else and nobody keeps the hallway clean because nobody rents the hall.
“The beds are rented by week or by night. They are rented along with the air and the hours. There is just so much warmth, just so much air…” (But where would she live now?)
Algren, who died in 1981, never saw much money from any of this, and what little he did see he lost at the track; His world view can perhaps be summed up by this line from Chicago: City On The Make, his 1951 prose poem: “Every day is D-day under the El.”