This blog is full of Cult Books posts. I read books virtually every day of my life and have done for most of my time on this planet. I like buying books second-hand which introduces an element of rich randomness. I like to turn people on to books that have inspired or captivated me. Here's two new discoveries that I found together. They are both stunning.
Sure I knew who Nelson Algren was - an American writer. When I was in LA in 1979 (another whole story), I went into a bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard and, after much deliberation, bought a hardback copy of 'The Man With The Golden Arm' - the Algren book that most people might have heard of as it was made into a movie with Frank Sinatra. I've never read it...yet. It's sat there for years.
'The Neon Wilderness' is much more approachable. Its an amazing collection of short stories - something I rarely read. Algren is all about the characters on the street. His city is Chicago where he more or less entirely lived and wrote. Hemingway considered him one of the two best writers in America. He had an affair with Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre translated his novel 'Never Come Morning' into French. It sold a million copies in the US. This is a cool edition from Seven Stories Press in New York, which includes part of a Paris Review interview by Terry Southern (you'll find a long post about him on this blog), a great and appreciative essay by his friend, another great Chicago figure, the writer and radio jock Studs Turkel. and an introduction by Tom Carson.
The power of these stories and the quality of the writing. Highly compressed, the people in his tales are totally vivid and are usually suffering. Yet they will not be beaten down. Algren is never patronising; in fact he gives his characters pride and respect no matter how beaten down they are by life. They may have lost their paycheck, drunk themselves blind, lost out on love and are homeless, crazed and alone. Yet Algren lovingly but dispassionately brings us their souls, takes us into their internal thinking, and evokes their landscape of bars in rundown districts, brothels, rooming houses and failed garages. He is particularly good at writing about boxing. Some of these stories are army tales. Algren enlisted in 1942. Three years later he had still not made the grade of Private first class. Did I mention he also wrote a novel called 'A Walk on the Wild Side' (1956) which Lou Reed acknowledges as his inspiration. I'm sure Bukowski and Raymond Carver, Tom Waits and many others lifted their hat and nodded in his direction. These tales will touch you deeply as they have me.
First off, I love the cover of this book which is credited to Chris Moore/Artist Partners. Back in the day, if you were into SF you almost inevitably read loads of the Gollancz science fiction list which had uniform yellow covers (a different shade to National Geographic but equally distinctive). These cool paperback reprints are very collectible.
I knew very little about Samuel R. Delaney so, having read this book cover to cover in two days, I looked him up on Wikipedia. He's mixed race and bisexual. He was the great SF prodigy of the 1960's. This is his sixth novel published in 1966 when he was 23. He's continued to write huge and wonderful books and be a highly respected professor and critic.
Babel-17 if a full-on space adventure whose main character is a brilliant female poet called Rydra Wong, loved and read by people from many civilisations who are at war with each other. Her highly-developed grasp of languages and cryptography leads to her being brought into a highly secret operation to try and decipher Babel-17 which appears to be linked to a series of "accidents" or terrorist incidents.
Within a few pages we are flung out into a massive universe of cultures, spacecraft, mysterious alien characters and incidents that bewilder at first but soon become three-dimensional worlds in your head. Some scenes in David Lynch's version of Dune give some hint as to the imagination and wonderment that pours off the page, so rich and wonderful. Hugely influential, Delany is a colossal talent. Makes you realise what lukewarm gruel we've been served up by modern cinema. There's no cliches in sight here, rather a mind that appears to have no boundaries.