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On the Bum

Somebody in Boots, by Nelson Algren. New York: The Vanguard Press. $2.50.

Hungry Men, by Edward Anderson. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.

Both of these books are built around a subject that, once unknown to most of us, is quickly becoming almost as standard in background and situation as the older and more romantic themes of adventure: the life of men who live on the road, on the bum. Their vocabulary is familiar—sallies, sinkers, misery and punks, shacks and floozies, vag charges, de-lousers, reefers, redballs—but still strange; their various bits of action are predictable, but exciting at the same time. This because they are parts of a violent hard life and because the choice of such a subject for writing seems to demand a certain method of the writing itself; that it be done at close range, not only in the jargon but in the pitiless objective mood of the thing, with a great deal of fidelity to detail.

But vivid action against a natural, though little known, environment will not serve all the purposes of a novel. Nelson Algren writes most of his book with such a rash will to literary power that heads are rolling, sores running, eyes hanging by a slimy thread and intestines dragging all over the place, this whole effect being extended even into the duller pages by an indiscriminate rough-housing of images (“her nose sniffing elegantly, as though to spew green phlegm sunward”). Besides, his hero is too weak, inept and sheerly dumb to live, and in the rare intervals when he is not being kicked in the groin by enemies of the working class, it is arranged that he shall step on a loose board and, plop, kick himself. During most of the book he seems more a slug than a man, arousing no feeling of kinship or respect or affection—only pity. And pity of this sort is pretty thin slops to float a novel on.

Fortunately, by the endof the book Cass McKay is allowed to have a square meal and a friend, and to make something tangible out of himself. And other matters have been similarly cleaned up, including the author’s prose, which is both lush and inept for chapters; “He felt the heart within him pumping, pumping momently.” “Somebody in Boots” deals with matters that can’t help being interesting for themselves when authentic; but it would make a fair book only if its author had thrown it out and used what he has apparently learned to write another.

As its title claims, Edward Anderson’s book is about hungry men, but it is a rather polite book and they are not very hungry. A young man bums into New York and gets friendly with some of the seamen sleeping around Battery Park. A whole country full of men sleeping in parks—he thinks it rotten that something should not be done about this. But no violence; he can’t agree with Boats (Boats comes through pretty solidly as a character, “short, and built like a fireplug”), who says communism might do it. After a brief job on an excursion steamer he becomes more disgusted, starts working with Boats in agitational work that ends in a demonstration before the Seamen’s Institute: if the fat directors are a charitable institution, where is their charity? The directors are found to be elsewhere, the police not. The police find it necessary to kill someone. It is Boats, of course. The hero slips town, and ends up finally in Chicago, playing in a street band and ironically beating a rap by denouncing the International.

This is a well done, if episodic book, with a firm quiet realism and no particular destination. (There is a good sense of developing social consciousness in it, but that part of it is curiously unfinished, as though having served briefly as an excuse for the story and for timeliness, and the end is even suspicious.) It is the Doubleday-Doran prize book (sharing honors) and looks it—by which I mean simply that it will not shake anybody to his foundations or wound any feelings. It is not false, it is fairly new. It makes good reading.

This article originally ran in the July 17, 1935, issue of the magazine.