10 of us met yesterday on a beautiful Chicago day to discuss drug abuse, drinking, bums, lost love, death, suicide and the gritty side of Chicago. I led the discussion and the others said that they had to come to find out why in the heck I had suggested this book for the Newberry group.
I explained that my first apartment in Chicago was at Honore/Augusta and I would walk by Evergreen Ave. (Honorary Nelson Algren Ave.) and think "I really have to read something by him". I felt like a fake Chicagoan for never having read Algren.
Well, we agreed there are still some of these characters in Chicago. For sure Algren would not recognize Wicker Park or Division. It's one of the hippest areas in the city. In fact the story goes that residents petitioned to have the honorary street name removed. Sure, don't want to hurt the re-sale value of the $1M condo.
This book won the FIRST National Book Award. It was a best seller but has gone in and out of print. The dialog can be confusing but you just have to go with it. One woman said she did not understand the slang involving the card games and we laughed and said maybe that was for the best. There is also the prose which we agreed is like poetry. Algren is one talented writer.
While I got tired of Frankie's act by the end of the book (you'll never be a drummer! get off drugs!) others felt he was a sympathetic character. The characters in this book did not benefit from any post WWII programs - they were on the bottom of society. This book doesn't make any comments about how to change their station or judge their way of living. In a way, Algren is utilizing his Journalism degree (from University of Illinois - yay!) to give us a peek into a life we may have never noticed and hopefully will never experience.
I could not find any book group guides online for this one. One woman quipped that was because little old ladies don't read it. So if anyone wants to add this one to their book group list let me know and I can share my discussion outline. Yes, Chicago is a character in the book and it's fun if you know the exact intersection or location but even if you're not in Chicago, or from Chicago, the tragic story is a good read.
Don't watch the movie - from what I hear it has a happy ending. If you want a visual for the book I would suggest looking for "Chicago's Nelson Algren" at your library. The Art Shay photographs and captions provide insight into Algren's life including his relationship with Simone de Beauvoir.
Most at the discussion agreed they were glad the book had shown up on the list because they had not read it. While it was depressing it provided for a great discussion, although we maybe should have planned a field trip to to Rainbo (supposedly one of the bars that Algren used as a model for Tug & Maul) for after book group!