By Peter Anderson
Never Come Morning is most certainly not Nelson Algren’s best book. That distinction belongs, depending on whom you ask, to either the novel The Man With the Golden Arm, the story collection The Neon Wilderness or the non-fiction Chicago: City on the Make; I lean toward the latter, which I feel is simultaneously one of the most beautiful love letters to and most bitter indictments of a city that has ever been written.
As Algren’s second novel, Never Come Morning is a seminal work, an incubator of sorts in which the writer introduces and tries out many of the themes and elements which he would hone to perfection in his next novel, the classic The Man With the Golden Arm: the struggling Polish lower class of Chicago’s Northwest Side, long, near-comic scenes set in police lineups and jail cells, a doomed protagonist blindly pursuing an unattainable dream, and characters who are overwhelmed by circumstance and fate.
Never Come Morning is far from perfect, bearing considerable flaws of both structure and insufficient rationalization. Never fully explained is why Lefty Bicek, the aspiring baseball pitcher/prizefighter protagonist, abandons his teenage girlfriend Steffi to the street gang he runs with; or why Steffi resigns herself, within mere hours of being abandoned by Lefty, to a life as a prostitute in a brothel a few short blocks from her home; or why Lefty takes the rap in a botched armed robbery for Casey – his dubious role model, a 30-year-old pug of a prizefighter who hangs out with teenagers and never does much of anything for Lefty – and goes to jail in Casey’s place, thus putting himself on a downward spiral from which he never fully recovers.
Structurally, the book’s forward momentum is arrested by its odd third section, which is largely devoted to a series of backstory sketches of the working girls in Steffi’s brothel. While their stories are modestly interesting, the other prostitutes are not integral to the plot; it seems as if Algren was intent on studying what draws women into prostitution and what compels them to stay, at the expense of his primary narrative. Steffi’s scenes in this section are essential in contrast, giving hints of her past life and color to her character, but her appearances are diluted by the showy intrusions of the rest of the troupe. There are also too few scenes of interaction between Lefty and Steffi during this section to show that they really care about each other.
[Images: (top & above) © Art Shay]
But it’s a true testament to Algren’s writing prowess that Never Coming Morning, despite its flaws, contains some of the most powerful scenes I’ve come across in modern fiction. The rape scene – implicitly presented, likely in deference to the censors of the era – is particularly devastating, bleak and shocking in its callousness, as Lefty succumbs to cowardice and the longing for the acceptance of his peers and all but walks away from Steffi, leaving her in the feral clutches of his gang friends. But Steffi proves equally callous and indifferent – after the third or fourth boy has had his way with her, she calls out a single word that will haunt Lefty for the rest of his life. The scene which takes place in the squalid shack under the sidewalk is so horrific, despite being hidden from the reader’s view, that it all but overshadows the fateful murder which takes place above.
Later, the poker game and its immediate aftermath is also quite sharply written, the scene full of tension and simmering menace, as the fleeting hope of Steffi finally defying her pimp and escaping her degraded life ultimately dissipates as the teenager, true to character, submits once again.
The penultimate scene, a boxing match which Lefty sees – probably too optimistically, given his limited boxing skills – as his big step toward a title bout, is vividly rendered and contains the finest fight scenes I have ever read. Algren proves himself an avid and highly observant enthusiast of the sport (and participant as well – a photograph from the 1940s shows a leather-gloved Algren working the heavy bag, his taut stomach muscles belying his dissolute-writer reputation) as he lovingly describes the head butts, low blows and the cutting of gloves (to tear open the opponent’s facial cuts), and the ways that a boxer can hide a broken fist.
After the fight, Lefty and Steffi briefly think they see their way out, the dimmest of lights at the end of the tunnel. But the conclusion, while not entirely unexpected, comes so abruptly after Lefty’s victory that it really packs a wallop, sending the reader plummeting downward right along with Lefty from his emotional high. Ultimately Lefty can’t escape the police who have been pursuing him, and Steffi is too weak, both physically and emotionally, to offer Lefty the redemption he needs. In this respect she contrasts sharply with Molly Novotny, the almost-heroine of The Man With the Golden Arm who nearly saves Frankie Machine. Although Molly similarly failed to save her man, she at least offered hope of redemption, and might well have succeeded had Frankie’s predicament not been so overwhelmingly desperate, much more so than that which Lefty succumbs to.
Lefty’s failure and resignation to cruel fate, like that of Frankie Machine, is hardly surprising, as there is little redemption to be found in any of Algren’s fiction. Characters struggle, suffer and finally submit, somehow managing to smile and joke along the way before accepting all of it with a quiet shrug. For Lefty, like many of Algren’s other protagonists, morning never comes, nor does the promise of a new day ever arrive. Lefty’s fatalistic parting words – “I knew I’d never get to be twenty-one anyhow”, which Algren borrowed from a real-life doomed teenager he once witnessed in police court – are the perfect postlude for this intriguing if flawed novel from one of America’s underappreciated giants.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peter Anderson is a longtime Algren enthusiast who once hunted for the Chicago apartment building where The Man With the Golden Arm was written, only to ruefully discover it had been torn down decades earlier for construction of an expressway. His literary musings, Algren-related and otherwise, are on public display at www.petelit.com. He lives and writes in Joliet, Illinois, his very own city on the make.