Friday, March 24, 2023

Nelson Algren lived the writer's life in the 1930s and J. Edgar Hoover was watching

I write a fan letter to fellow writer Colin Asher:

Dear Colin:

Just finished reading “Never a Lovely So Real.” I loved it. Your intro sections read more like an historical novel than standard biography. It helps that Nelson’s origins and his writing life were so real and unpredictable. Overall, I found out so much more about the writer who conducted my creative writing workshop at University of Florida in 1974. Nelson’s reputation preceded him and he took it with him after the 12-week session. Until I read your book, I was content to remember the grizzled old 63-year-old who wandered into the classroom on a hot September night in Gainesville. Now I know better. I’m glad you found his life worth writing about.

Nelson was my first writing teacher. He was a gruff but entrancing presence in the classroom. I only knew him by reputation. As you write it, that was part fact and part fiction, some of it fed by Nelson. I’d read one of his books and a half-dozen stories. His past was checkered but I knew little about it. He’d been friends with James T. Farrell and Richard Wright and lover to Simone de Bouvier, a feminist writer found on many women’s studies reading lists. Two of his books were made into movies and he spent some crazy time in Hollywood. His political activities earned him a file in J. Edgar’s commie blacklist (886 pages – one heck of a file).

Remembering that time almost 50 years later, Visiting Writer Nelson Algren was an unsettling presence on the sprawling University of Florida campus. His clothing was more Dust Bowl Goodwill than Central Florida Casual. He wore rumpled shirts, loose-fitting slacks, and what looked like the army boots he wore during his time with a medical unit in France during World War II. He sported a grizzled beard and a cap that looked better on Tom Joad. He was old, probably the worst sin you could commit on a campus known for frats, football and consistent listings on Playboy Magazine’s “Top Party Schools.” Schools made the grade by earning an A-plus in three criteria: Sex, nightlife, sports. Creative writing is not mentioned. Keggers under the palms were the order of the day and nobody really wanted to take a walk on the wild side or meet the man with the golden arm who prowled The Windy City’s mean streets.

Me – I wanted to take that walk. Nelson Algren was the real thing. Here he was, stuck in a classroom in one of the campus’s oldest buildings teaching writing to kids from Daytona and Apalachicola. I looked at him as a weathered sage. We were a wave of youth in the U.S.A. who knew very little about what life was like for most Americans. We wrote stories about surfing and soured relationships. The stories in Algren’s “Neon Wilderness” might have been about Martians for all we knew. Grifters and gamblers, whores and junkies. I wanted to know these people because I desperately wanted to be a writer. I just didn’t know how to go about it.

Nelson was generous of his time and expertise. He told great stories. One of our fellow students invited us to her apartment where we smoked dope. Nelson partook, noting that he used to smoke it with Chicago’s jazz musicians and the addicts he met when writing “The Man with the Golden Arm.” He even grew his own brand of weed outside his bungalow near Gary, Indiana.

Another night, my pal Big Mike, piled us into his big black station wagon and took us to the strip club where he was a bouncer. Big Mike was a teetotaling Vietnam vet whose studio apartment was piled high with cases of bottled Pepsi because he could never find enough Pepsi in Coca-Cola country. I had a feeling that Algren had been in rougher places but he was a good sport. After his second drink, he demonstrated how he would put his head between the dancer’s big breasts and make motorboat sounds. It shocked me, the idea of this old writer motorboating a stripper. What he might have been saying is this: “Don’t waste any time, boys. Do motorboats when you can. It all goes by faster than you know.” I wasn’t listening then but now know something about the brief span of a lifetime.

In class, Algren was kind to our stories but made suggestions to make them better. I wrote a story about a homeless guy getting evicted from a tent in a mall parking lot. Algren said it needed some work. He handed out his recommended reading list. I wish I still had it. Hemingway was on it along with books I didn’t know: “A House for Mr. Biswas” by V.S. Naipaul, “The End of the Game and Other Stories” by Julio Cortazar, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “The Good Soldier Svejk” by Jaroslav Hasek, and the collected stories of John Collier. On the last night of class, Algren handed me a slip of paper with his agent’s name and address and told me to contact her. I didn’t see him do that with any of the other students and felt pretty special. I never followed up. I had nothing to show an agent except a half-finished story and late-night journal entries.

A year later, my next writing prof was Harry Crews. I figured he probably knew some of the same people Algren did, ne’er-do-wells and junkies and killers. Algren came from the mean streets and Crews from the mean swamps of the Okefenokee. If you’re curious about how mean it was, read his memoir “A Childhood: The Biography of a Place.” This was before Crews got sober and didn’t always make it to class, regaling the locals at Lillian’s Music Store which wasn’t a music store. When he did, he told great stories. One night, he read aloud his favorite story, “How Beautiful with Shoes” by Wilbur Daniel Steele, a wonderful writer whom nobody in class had ever heard of, This from Wikipeda: “Steele has been called ‘America's recognized master of the popular short story’ between World War I and the Great Depression.” Crews wrote an Esquire column called “Grits” and had stories and essays featured in Playboy. One I remember the best was “The Button-down Terror of David Duke,” infamous KKK grand wizard from Louisiana. Crews wrote about an ill-fated backpacking trip along the Appalachian Trail that ended in a Tennessee town that once convicted and hung a circus elephant for stomping a boy to death.

I was lucky to have two great early mentors. At the time, I didn’t understand it but knew it was important to my imagined writing career. After graduation, I worked in Denver as a sportswriter and edited a weekly alternative newspaper. I was a corporate editor until I decided it was killing me. I wrote a novel and snagged myself an agent in Ray Powers of the Marje Fields Agency. He helped me revise the book and shopped it around. I told him I was quitting my job and he advised me to get a numbing day job so I could have plenty of energy left for writing. Instead, a went off to get my M.F.A. at Colorado State University. It helped my writing and helped me get published. It also sent me off with a career as an arts administrator at a state arts council and then the National Endowment for the Arts. It cut into my writing time. I’m retired now and have time to think about paths taken and not taken. I write every day and have a short list of published fiction. I have a fine family and a house. Still, Ray Powers might have been right. I’ll never know.

Thanks again. I look forward to reading your other work.


Michael Shay,,

P.S.: Ordered a copy of “Nelson Algren’s Own Book of Lonesome Monsters” after reading about it in your book. Couldn’t resist.

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