Nelson Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side stalked the sordid side of Depression-era New Orleans
Imagine A Confederacy of Dunces transported to the lowest level of Dante’s Inferno and you’re halfway to understanding Algren’s novel, a surreal sexcapade slathered with sleaze, set during the sweltering New Orleans summer of 1931. Though none of his biographers make the case, Ken Toole almost certainly read Wild Side as a Tulane undergrad when it was published in 1956, and more than likely cribbed from its pages when composing Dunces. Both novels feature immature, sex-obsessed, overbearing parent-repressed protagonists who encounter, in a sequence of comedic, picaresque vignettes, a succession of local oddballs—including a misfit parrot!— while roaming from job to absurdist job.
Ignatius’s progenitor is Dove Linkhorn, who, like his counterpart, is a virgin. The character similarities end there. A “pitiful critter” living in the “shite-poke town” of Arroyo, Texas, Dove is the illiterate son of a rotgut, flat-Earth–espousing, courthouse-steps preacher. Dove doesn’t care if the planet is pretzel-shaped, as long as it’s populated by women. “I don’t know what kind of great I’m bound to be,” Dove thinks to himself after his first go at coitus uninterruptus. “All I know for certain is I’m a born world-shaker.” And so it shall be.
Shirtless, shoeless, and altogether aimless, Dove skips towns and hits the rails alongside scores of Hooverville hobos drunk on bandanna-percolated Sterno. In an eastbound boxcar he meets Kitty Twist, an underaged, tattooed runaway who dreams of moving to New Orleans and settling down with a pickpocket. For Dove, the city sounds like a place to do a bit of world-shaking. There, he checks into a ten-cent flophouse where fellow Great Depression–depressed bindlestiffs conjure ten-cent dreams beneath chicken-wire ceilings.
Dove eventually lands among the bedbug brothels and stale-air speakeasies of Perdido— “the street for whom nobody prays,” Algren writes—where he fits right in among the city’s underbelly confederacy of deviants, outlaws, and derelicts. On Perdido Street, Fortuna’s Wheel spins with unbridled, indiscriminate violence. Today’s “stuffed shirts and do-righties” are tomorrow’s “bummies and rummies and amateur martyrs . . . creepers and kleptoes and zanies and dipsoes.”
Dove soon hooks up with a pair of grifters who specialize in door-to-door hustles: selling stolen coffee pots and beauty-salon gift certificates. The naive scammer gets scammed again and again. Done with the door-knock life, he works in a rubber factory, making O-Daddy condoms for a quack named Dr. Gross. He eventually ends up back on Perdido, where a pimp coerces him into starring in a peepshow—ten dollars earns perverts a chance to watch Dove fornicate with any of the advertised “virgins.” Myrna Minkoff this ain’t.
Like his creation, Algren hitchhiked and hoboed down to New Orleans in early 1932. The promising, hardscrabble young journalist—he had already done a short stint in jail for stealing a typewriter—arrived with nothing more than his crumpled college diploma in his pocket.
If his hometown of Chicago was down and out, he found Depression-era New Orleans to be notably downer and far, far outer. “The girls were so hard-pressed,” Algren wrote in his journal, “that if you bought one a pork sandwich for ten cents you could sleep with her.” Like Dove, Algren pounded the streets as a door-to-door salesman, peddling percolators, beauty supplies, and those same bogus certificates. He survived on chicory coffee and bananas provided by a local mission, and, during those rare instances when a few loose coins jangled in his pocket, five-cent po-boys. He skipped town after a few months and began writing fiction that illuminated America’s dark side.
Dove Linkhorn doesn’t escape the Big Easy so easily. Tethered to performing for his pimp, he outfits himself in a seersucker suit, cream-colored suedes, feathered Stetson, and a new name: Big Stingaree. He boozes himself numb, succumbs to a coworker’s illicit affections, and lands in the clink. He leaves New Orleans just as he came: another nameless hustler swallowed and spit up by the city’s mean streets, too soon forgotten, another victim of Fortuna. “Nobody was long remembered,” Algren writes, “on Old Perdido Street.”
Dove never returns to New Orleans. But Nelson Algren did, in May 1948, alongside his lover Simone de Beauvoir. The oddly mismatched but hot-blooded literary couple—noir-ish-novelist-meets-French-feminist-philosopher—filled their brief stay with jazz, whiskey, and sex, all while trying their best to forget Simone’s lifelong beau back home, Jean-Paul Sartre.
When A Walk on the Wild Side arrived the following decade, reviews were harsh (the Times-Picayune called it “after-dinner literature . . . a litany of the low life . . . dead weight”). Critics expected a follow-up to Algren’s gritty but palatable novel The Man with the Golden Arm, which won the very first National Book Award for Fiction in 1950. What Wild Side delivered was just that: a tale too wild for many to stomach. Though the book sold well, its author remained mired in the muck of disappointment and purportedly tried to kill himself by walking across a patch of thin ice outside his home. A neutered 1962 Hollywood production starring Laurence Harvey and Jane Fonda didn’t help; Algren never bothered to see the film, lamenting, “I also keep moving when I see a crowd gathering where somebody has been run over by a garbage truck.”
For many who have taken Algren’s Walk, the story remains hard to forget. Numerous writers have plundered the novel for material, including Hunter S. Thompson in Hell’s Angels and, most overtly, James Leo Herlihy in Midnight Cowboy (Joe Buck and Big Stingaree might as well be cousins). And then there’s Lou Reed. Approached by Broadway producers to pen a musical based on the book, he transported Algren’s Perdido Street to Andy Warhol’s New York Factory to craft his biggest hit, 1972’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”
I remain resigned to the fact that A Walk on the Wild Side will never measure up, at least in the public’s estimation, to A Confederacy of Dunces. There will never be a statue dedicated to Dove Linkhorn on Canal Street. But I also know that Fortuna’s wheel is fickle, especially when it comes to literature. Yesterday’s dead weight might be tomorrow’s Great New Orleans Novel.
Rien Fertel’s latest book, Southern Rock Opera, is out in October.