A Walk on the Wild Side

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[Kline to Dove:] ‘Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own. [...] Life is hard by the yard, son. But you don't have to do it by the yard. By the inch it's a cinch. And money can't buy everything. For example: poverty.

A Walk on the Wild Side (1956) is a novel by American writer Nelson Algren. It was adapted into the 1962 film of the same name.

Set in Depression era, it is "the tragi-comedy of Dove Linkhorn", a naive Texan drifting from his hometown to New Orleans. Algren noted, "The book asks why lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives."


Quoted from the 2009 digital edition, Canongate, ISBN 978-1-84767-649-8.


Chapter 1[edit]

  • Cotton grew, fruit grew, oil gushed a year and dried. Before it dried Fitz put in a year as a gaffer, made good money and found his girl. A girl who had thought herself rough enough. / Cotton failed, fruit failed – oil had spoiled the soil. It became a country of a single crop, and the crop was dust. Fifteen years of it did the girl in, feeling she'd had enough of oil.
    • About Fitz Linkhorn (protagonist's father) in the 1910s and 1920s.
  • The pianola roll whispered on and on, it had not happened to him before so heart-shakingly as this. / And the moon that could never wane dimmed down to no more than a gas lamp's leaning glow. Drinkers and dancers, gaffers and gamblers, all had gone. / Out in the sand and the Spanish Dagger, in chaparral-pea and honey-mesquite where under the thorn the horned toad waits, the prairie dog slept in his burrow. White bones bleached in the sun. Before the music was over; before the dancing was done. / And a little wind went searching in circles to ask, Where had those lovers gone before the dance was done? / All was well. They had breathed each other's breath. All was well: they had drunk of each other's lips. / All was well, for what was dust had when living been loved.
    • About the dilapidated Hotel Davy Crockett.
  • YOU ARE NOW ENTERING ARROYO / Pop. 955 / A statistic that didn't include the Mexican woman whose residence was just far enough beyond it to keep her free of local taxes. Whose own way home, eleven months of twelve, was up a flight of careworn stairs to a room guarded only by the Virgin Mary. / Terasina Vidavarri slept within a double ruin. Within the wreck of her own hopes, inside what was left of the Hotel Crockett. The last guest had left and all along the long uncarpeted hall, the doors, like her own soul's door, were boarded on both sides. / [...] / ‘It is lucky to love any time, for then you have someone to live for,’ Terasina thought, ‘but if you are not in love that is lucky also. Because then you have no problem.’
    • About 1930 Arroyo, Texas, and the chili parlor where the protagonist works.
  • ‘Un-utter-uble sorrows is in store for all,’ he gave his holy word – a Santa Claus with nothing save horrors in his sack, hollowing every syllable to make Hell so imminent they could scarcely await their turn on the spit. ‘Un-utter-uble sorrows! Un-dying Damnation! Ut-ray-jus visi-tay-shuns! Invasion by an army! A army of lepers! [...]’ / Oh, they loved those leper mounties so they scarcely knew which side to join first. It didn't matter: no cause was too mad so long as the action was fast and the field bloody. Swept, they were swept by the enormous loneliness of their lives up to the very gates of the golden city, then swept clear back to the burning plains of Damnation. An action so fast it permitted no moment wherein to take breath and look within. To look within at their own hearts, so dark so empty just as hearts. [...] / ‘How about New York?’ some people never wanted to go anywhere alone. / ‘Buried in a rain of toads! Toads big as cats to Wall Street's topmost tower!’ / Wall Street had all the luck.
    • Fitz Linkhorn preaching in 1930 Arroyo, Texas.
  • A Mexican girl held, in a fold of a yellow shawl, a carnival kewpie to her breast. The shawl's dusty fringes, tumbling past her ankles, had gathered enough soot to start a fire itself. Kewpie and child guarded an empty doll buggy on knock-kneed wheels. [...A train comes and goes...] In the ditch at the embankment's foot a doll buggy lay upside down, its wheels still turning this way then that. A few feet away someone had slung a yellow shawl. It stirred. Then its yellow began seeping to black. / ‘The wheel caught the buggy but she wouldn't let go of the handle,’ he heard somebody say. / ‘Wait for the priest,’ said somebody else in such a tone that Dove assumed that the priest, when he came, would explain, in low, simple tones, how a child so small could love a doll so much that she had not feared even a freight train's wheels.
    • About freezing kids stealing coal from a train during its brief stop.
  • Her breath began drawing slower, soot and sleep sealed her eyes. / Her face in sleep looked furtive yet innocent, like one already punished for a crime she hasn't grown up to commit. When she was old enough to commit it she'd find it.
    • 17-year-old runaway Kitty Twist (protagonist's then-associate).
  • He felt her cold little lips and her small cold mouth, her little cold hands that felt so greedy. / ‘Daddy, you'll never have to work,’ Kitty Twist told Dove. ‘I'll work hard 'n give you all my money.’ / He couldn't see her smiling too knowingly in the dark. / [...] / ‘Red, what I'm trying to say is I'll hustle for you if want me to.’ / ‘I'll hustle for you too,’ he promised. / ‘My God,’ the girl thought, ‘he thinks I mean I'm going to be a shoe-clerk for him. I'm going to have to straighten him out till there's nothing left but kinks.
    • Dove "Red" Linkhorn and Kitty Twist.
  • The poorer people are the more likely they are to help you,’ Kitty told him the next morning after they had once again left engine and cars in charge of the crew. ‘Pick the first unpainted shack you see.’ / She followed Dove into a littered yard and waited while he rapped the door of a knocked-together-by-hand house the color of soot. A soot-colored wife came to answer.
    • Kitty Twist to Dove Linkhorn.
  • Down in Houston's Mexican slum there stood, that June of '31, a three-story firetrap with a name: H O T E L / That's all: Hotel Hotel. / ‘Never did try sleepin' in a skyscraper afore,’ Dove looked up – ‘Whut do it costes here?’ / ‘Thirty-five cents apiece,’ Kitty informed him, ‘and some places go yet higher.’ / ‘In that case,’ Dove decided, ‘we'll have to find an inexpensive place.’ / ‘We get breakfast throwed in here though.’ / ‘What gits throwed?’ / ‘Mission donuts 'n coffee black.’ / ‘Then we're too far north.’ / Kitty tried to let it go but the temptation was too strong. / ‘How do you figure that, Red?’ / ‘When folks stop puttin' out liverpuddin' for breakfast, everyone's too far north.
    • Dove "Red" Linkhorn and Kitty Twist.
  • All he recalled clearly was opening the door the next morning and seeing a veil of mist so blue it blurred the outlines of house, hill and tree. And as the morning warmed the whole big blue world began to smoke faintly. / Louisiana. / In the long afternoon the clouds stacked. And still, over it all, that pale shifting veil. / A real southland haze in which one sees whatever one wishes to see. A haze that seeps behind the eyes and makes a wish-dream of everything.
    • About Dove Linkhorn reaching Louisiana in a boxcar.
  • The whole town was in drydock, the whole country in hock, but the pit of the Depression, a secretary of labor announced, was past at last. The President's stand on wages had averted an even worse slump, the secretary added, ‘Business is starting back.’ / ‘Nobody goes hungry,’ said Little Round Hoover, wiping chicken gravy off his little round chin. A man with the right stuff in him didn't need government help to find work. That would make him lazy. He might even get sick. Self-reliance for the penniless and government help to the rich, the Old Guard was in again. Hoover patted the chicken inside his own pot. ‘I got it made,’ said Little Round Hoover. / And in all those miles of wharves and docks the one boat still shipping water was a freighter under an Argentine flag and the proud Spanish title of Shichi-Fukujin.
  • ‘Mister, I'll cook, I'll cuss, I'll mend yer socks, I'll stoke yer engines 'r catch you a damn whale barehand. [...]’ / ‘You do know that there is a seafaring man's union?’ He gave Dove the benefit of a serious doubt. / ‘Mister, I'm a Christian boy and don't truckle to Yankee notions. Put my name in your ship's dinner-pot and you're my captain, I'm your hand. Just tell me ever-what you want done and I'll 'tend it, for I'm bedcord strong. If I don't turn you out what in your eyes makes a fair day's work you can put me off at the first port of call. Aint that fair enough?’ / ‘Mighty fair, son. If more boys were willing to work for nothing there'd be just that many more millionaires.
    • Dove Linkhorn and a ship's foreman.
  • Three shots of corn likker and the whole stuffed zoo – Moose, Elks, Woodmen, Lions, Thirty-Third Degree Owls and Forty-Fourth Degree Field Mice begin to conspire against the very laws they themselves have written. / It was all right to take a slug of whiskey from your own flask in a taxi, but forbidden on a trolley-car. That didn't help those who rode trolley-cars. You couldn't carry liquor down the street, but if you owned a car you just bypassed that. For every statute they had a little loophole – that by coincidence fitted their own figures as if measured for them. Those who had no hand in writing statutes – panders and madams and such as that – had a harder time squeezing through. / It was an ancestral treachery that all do-righters practice.
    • About 1931 New Orleans.
  • When opening time was closing time and everyone was there, down where you lay your money down, where it's everything but square, where hungry young hustlers hustle dissatisfied old cats and ancient glass-eyed satyrs make passes at bandrats; where it's leaping on the tables, where it's howling lowdown blues, when it's everything to gain and not a thing to lose – when it's all bought and paid for then there's always one thing sure: it's some Do-right Daddy-O running the whole show.
    • About "old Perdido Street", New Orleans (hiding 14 lines of rhyme and meter).
  • It was night bright as day, it was day dark as night, but stuffed shirts and do-righties owned those shows. / For a Do-Right Daddy is right fond of money and still he don't hate fun. He charged the girls double for joint-togs and drinks, rent, fines, towel service and such. But before any night's ball was done, he joined in the fun. / Later he had to be purged of guilt so he could sleep with his wife again. That was where the pulpit came in. There had to be something official like that to put the onus on the women. The preachers, reformers, priests and such did this work well. Some girls were just naturally bad, they explained. Others were made bad by bad men. In no case was it ever the fault of anyone who profited by the shows. Daddy, you can go home again.
    • About "old Perdido Street", New Orleans.
  • When we get more houses than we can live in, more cars than we can ride in, more food than we can eat ourselves, the only one way of getting richer is by cutting off those who don't have enough. If everybody has more than enough, what good is my more-than-enough? What good is a wide meadow open to everyone? It isn't until others are fenced out that the open pasture begins to have real value. What good is being a major if you can't have more than a second lieutenant? What good is a second lieutenant for that matter?
    • Narration.
  • ‘Dear friends and gentle hearts,’ [the King of the Turtles] wigwagged, feeling the final cold creep up – ‘Will you stand by to leave your old friend die? I wanted nothing for myself – money, comfort, power, security – I worked for these only because those dear to me wanted them. (Of course, as long as they were handy I shared them from time to time.) Would you really leave me here to die? / True, I ate well. But that was only to keep up my strength for the sacrificial ordeal of my days. For I never knowingly harmed a fellow creature unless he got in my way. I never took unfair advantage unless it profited me. Can you really leave so lovely a turtle to die? / A devoted father, a loyal citizen, a faithful employee, a kind employer, a considerate neighbor, a regular church-goer. Out of purity of heart I respected the laws of God and man. Purity, and fear of jail. Could you really stand by and watch so saintly a turtle die? / I seemed a bit intent a moment ago, you say, on grinding my brothers' necks to gristle? I confess – but that was a moment ago, and now I've changed my ways. Could you bear to see such an open-minded turtle die?’
    • The dying ode of the biggest turtle beheaded for soup.
  • When his eyes had got used to the deep-sea light he discerned a Negro the size of Carnera, naked to the waist and shining with iron-colored sweat, decapitating snapping turtles with silvered precision. / Now the trouble with turtles is that they believe all things come to him who will but struggle. There's always room at the top for one more, they think. And in this strange faith the snapping kind is of all the most devout. For it's precisely that that makes them the snapping kind. Though the way be steep and bloody, that doesn't matter so long as you reach the top of the bleeding heap. / [...] / Dove didn't hesitate. ‘I'll take the tarpon soup.’ / He didn't yet know that there was also room for one more at the bottom.
    • Includes the last two lines of the chapter.

Chapter 2[edit]

  • In the cheery old summer of '31 some states were dry and some states were wet. [...] / The Ladder of Success had been inverted, the top was the bottom, and the bottom was the top. Leaders of men still sporting gold watches were lugging baby photographs door to door with their soles flapping. Physicians were out selling skin lighteners and ship captains queued in hope of a cabin boy's mop and pail. / Offices of great fire insurance companies went up in smoke, which seemed no more than just. When the fire department – long unpaid – cleared off, little remained but scorched files, swivel-chairs on which no one would ever swivel again, lovely heaps of frosted glass, and all that mahogany. / All that mahogany that hadn't helped anybody but brokers after all. Then the brokers began jumping off rooftops with no greater consideration for those passing below than they'd had when their luck was running. Emperors of industry snatched all the loose cash on which they could lay hand and made one fast last run. Lawyers sued one another just to keep in practice.
    • About the Depression era under Hoover.
  • He came to an intersection where one road led to town and the other away. The town road was festooned, street lamp to street lamp, with welcoming pennants; it was wide and newly paved. The other was lampless and pennantless and plainly led nowhere at all. Without hesitation Dove chose the nowhere road. For that was the only place, in his heart of hearts, that he really wanted to go.
    • Dove Linkhorn as a door-to-door salesman.
  • ‘My line of work, as you may have guessed, Tex, is women. Do you know anything about them?’ / ‘I know that if God made anything better I aint come across it yet, but that's as far as my knowledge goes.’
    • Pimp Oliver Finnerty and Dove "Tex" Linkhorn (contrast with Kline's line and the last lines of the novel, see below).
  • ‘When you start hitting toward sixty,’ Gross complained, ‘you feel some days like you want to take a cab to the graveyard and wait for your maker beside your stone. Yet when you've not had an hour's true contentment out of all those sixty years, you don't want to lay down till you've had your hour. You want something for all your pain.’
    • Rhino Gross (condom maker) to his wife Velma.
  • That was no town for the aged or the aging. There was love behind the curtains and love behind the doors. Love in the squares and circles and love along the curbs. / Particularly along those curbs west of the Southern Railway Station. Where every window framed some love bird lamed in flight. Where every screen door was a cage. What had been Storyville was now an aviary. / [...] / From wheatland and tenement, hotel and harbor, girls and women of a hundred feathers had come to nest both sides of South Basin. Girls downy as chicks who have just lost their mammas and chorus-line dolls who had long lost their down. Girls who came scolding like winter jays, ruffing their tail feathers and ready for battle. But some like little wrens of summer, seeking hollows to hide in forever. / [...] / Birds of a hundred varied feathers, hooters, hissers, howlers, quackers – it was a new kind of zoo wherein the captured foraged for themselves.
  • Good girls and bad carried on so much alike, in the cheery old summer of 1931, a Yankee might well have been deceived. / The Southern boy was a bit harder to fool. The moment he saw a girl behind a door screen naked to her navel and lifting her breasts, he sensed something was up. When she did a slow spread-legged grind and threw in a blinding bump for good measure, he suspected it wasn't free. When she opened the door and said, ‘Step in, I don't bite,’ he went in, of course, out of simple courtesy. But he wasn't fooled: she was after his money, that was all. No, it wasn't easy to fool a Southern boy any summer.
    • About 1931 New Orleans.
  • Finnerty, who looked like one of those little Australian foxes with ears half the length of its body, claimed to be five foot but had to be wearing his cowboy boots to make good the boast. / [...] / Oliver owned five women, a single-motored plane and a captive mouse. He claimed to be the first pander in the entire South to transport women by plane. A claim making every single one of the five proud of their five-foot daddy.
    • About pimp Oliver Finnerty.
  • Until a girl had relinquished every claim but those to basin, bed and towel, you couldn't trust her. You couldn't trust her until she had forgotten it was money she was working for. It took a man years of dedication to bring a girl to that. Only when he had madams sending him cash – no money orders – from half a dozen parts of the country might it be truly said of a man that he was a good pimp. / Finnerty's talent lay in his limitless contempt for all things female. He treated women as though they were mindless. And in time they began to act mindlessly.
    • About pimp Oliver Finnerty.
  • Finnerty closed the door behind him and dropped the key into his pocket. ‘You know I'm not without help, little baby,’ he warned her. / ‘I don't plan to cut you,’ Hallie told him quietly. ‘I got cut once myself. I won't scratch you because I don't like to see a man walking around with scratches on his face. I won't throw acid in your eyes because it makes me sorry to see a blind person. All I'll do is kill you where you stand. If you get through the door I'll kill you on the stair. If you make the stair I'll kill you in the parlor. If you make the street I'll kill you on the curb. I'll kill you in the alley. I'll kill you in God's House. I'll kill you anywhere.’ / Finnerty stood with his head slightly bent, his brow lined by doubt. / ‘Did you lose something, Oliver?’ / ‘My key,’ he told her, ‘I lost my key.’ / ‘My key I take it you mean.’ / ‘Your key.’ / ‘It's laying in your cuff. You got a hole in your pocket. Bring your pants up later and I'll make you a new pocket.’
    • Pimp Oliver Finnerty and indie prostitute Hallie Breedlove.
  • I never heard of a pimp being elected mayor nor even of one who bothered to vote, so why blame them for the way things are? They weren't the ones who made the laws that let the trade go on. If nobody wanted there to be pimps, honey, there wouldn't be no pimps. Isn't it strange that it's the very ones who say we're a public disgrace who pay us best? You know yourself that it's the ones from the Department who come down early on Saturdays to holler, “Bring us two women and a bottle!” ’ / ‘What's wrong about two women and a bottle?’ Hallie asked, just to find out. / ‘Honey, there's nothing wrong with two women and a bottle, or three or four women and a whole case, so long as you don't sneak it and preach against it the next day.
    • Madam Mama to Hallie Breedlove.
  • That nothing could lower human dignity faster than manual labor was understood. ‘Go get yourself a lunch bucket and get back in your ditch’ was the ultimate insult on Perdido Street.
    • About the pimps and whores of Perdido Street.
  • ‘Why, I got a daddy friend don't take a dime off me. He buys me things. He's going to buy me a Cadillac so long I'll have to back up to turn a corner.’ Whatever Fort Worth's real name was, no one ever called her anything but Five, to honor a navel formed to that figure. When asked to show her wonderful navel she would show it, sweetly and simply, just like that. Men pinched her bottom, yet she did not hold herself proudly just because of that. / No chicken farm story was likely to catch Five. She had been brought up on one, and had had enough of that. Yet she was wide open to the Cadillac story, which was nothing more than the chicken farm story on wheels. / Oh, that long easy rider with the real careful driver. When promises would buy Cadillacs, Five would own a whole fleet. / Until that time Five would go on her feet.
    • About prostitute "Five" ("the Fort Worth blonde") and her pimp.
  • The courts were against them, the police were against them, businessmen, wives, churches, press, politicians and their own panders were against these cork-heeled puppets. Now the missions were sending out sandwich men to advertise that Christ Himself was against them.
    • About prostitutes.
  • It was that slander-colored evening hour before the true traffic begins, when once again sheets have been changed, again Lifebuoy and permanganate have been rationed; and once again for blocks about, pouting or powdering or dusting their navels, each girl wonders idly what manner of man – mutt, mouse, or moose – the oncoming night will bring her. / Perdido Street, in the steaming heat, felt like a basement valet shop with both irons working. The girls in the crib doors plucked at their blouses to peel them off their breasts. In the round of their armpits sweat crept in the down. Sweat molded their pajamas to their thighs. The whole street felt molded, pit to thigh. It was even too hot to solicit. For normal men don't so much as glance at the girls in heat like that lest the watery navels stick. / Yet the very heat that enervates men infects women with restlessness and the city was full of lonesome monsters. Side-street solitaries who couldn't get drunk, seeking to lose their loneliness without sacrificing their solitude. Dull boys whose whole joy expired in one piggish grunt. Anything could happen to a woman available to anyone. Boredom of their beds and terror of their street divided each.
    • About 1931 New Orleans's Perdido Street.
  • Mama had lost the thread. All she could remember was that she had four husbands. / ‘Three of them were thieves and one was a legit man – I'd never marry another legit man. Did you know that a prize fighter is more gentle than other men, outside the ring? That's because he knows what a man's fists can do. Do you know that you're safer living with a man who kills for hire than with a man who has never killed? That's because one knows what killing is. The other don't.’ / ‘Why,’ Navy remarked, ‘in that case ill-fame women ought to make better wives than legitimate girls.’ / Again that odd little silence fell. Nobody knew what to say to that. / ‘Navy, I think that's the nicest thing I've heard anyone say since I've been in the trade,’ Hallie said – [...]
    • Madam Mama, customer "Navy", and prostitute Hallie Breedlove.
  • Long after midnight old lonely trains called up to Mama like lovers forever arriving too late for love. Up from the long grieving river they called, past track and tower and dock, to windows long darkened and doorways long locked; old beaux that had walked Perdido Street long ago, returning to mourn the names of girls they had loved. They had plenty to spend and all night for loving. But the windows were darkened, the doors were locked, and the only girls whose names they knew had no name now but dust.
    • About madam Mama.
  • Because the air was so close, the whiskey so bad, the prices so high and the place so hard to climb up to, everyone came to Dockery's Dollhouse night after night while other bars stayed empty. / Everyone came, that is, but the law. To this lopsided shambles, where the floor slanted slightly, no police ever came. When the big hush fell that meant trouble was starting, the old man drew the shutters until the trouble was done. / The old man had himself never fought another man in his life – yet he took a senile pleasure in watching others go at it. He pretended that it was the manly thing, to ‘let them fight it out’ – but the titillating joy he took when the first blood flowed was a womanish delight.
    • About "Doc" Dockery and his bar.
  • Hallie stood quite still, pitying the power that could not be contained. And after a while smiled down, stroked his hair and agreed as with a child: yes, it was all the fault of his stumps. / To such tenderness he reacted like an enormous cat. And rolled within his massive arms, pressed to the great cave of his chest, his lion's breath against her breast, she felt his passion relentlessly driving. And then it was as though no man till Legless Schmidt had possessed her. / [...] / Schmidt had never felt a woman like that before. With him it was as if he had never had a woman completely till Hallie. Only with her, not until her, never at any moment except those with her was he a man, able, loved, possessing and possessed – his own true man again. / In her he spent a lifetime's wrath. In him she too lived once more. Nine Christmases she had been buried, and twice that many for him. And with each time together, each lived a little while again.
    • Hallie Breedlove and amputee Achilles "Legless" Schmidt.
  • ‘We're all a little on the odd side,’ Hallie guessed, ‘from the life we've led. The life we've all led.’ And taking his hand led him to the bed. / ‘I don't mean for you to love me,’ she had to tell him a minute after, ‘just hold me. Hold.’ / Dove held her, sensing only dimly that in holding her he was saving her.
    • Hallie Breedlove and Dove Linkhorn.
  • ‘If we had such good good generals and all of that, how come we got whupped, Hallie?’ / ‘North had more guns. Go to sleep, Dove.’ / But in the big blue middle of the night she felt a nudge. / ‘Why, in that case it weren't a question or right makin' might after all. It was more a matter of might makin' right.’ / ‘Might makes might,’ she murmured sleepily. / ‘Yes, but how I look at it,’ he made one more ageless decision, ‘the reason the North got most guns was because they had the right to start. What I fail to understand is how come it taken them four years to whup a bunch with such a sorry cause as ourn.’
    • Dove Linkhorn and Hallie Breedlove. (Sic: "question or right" in print and digital.)
  • When they came to the monkey house he stopped dead. In one cage a hairy little character was banging his knuckles on his girlfriend's skull to make her climb a tree for some special purpose all his own. / ‘Why! There's [a pimp] and [his whore]!’ Dove called to Hallie in real glee, and pitched popcorn at [the pimp]. Then of a sudden it didn't seem so funny after all, and they moved on.
    • Dove Linkhorn to Hallie Breedlove at the zoo. ("There’s Oliver and Reba!" referenced pimp Oliver Finnerty and one of his whores.)
  • A single iron-colored owl waited in the shadows of noon like a dream waiting only for nightfall to be dreamt. And a scent of decay blew off him, as though he were rotting under his feathers. / To watch where the elephant, crowned with children, swayed as he walked to excite the children. He looked like a great fool of a child himself. Yet he bore the weak upon his back.
    • At the zoo.
  • Toward evening a small breeze came up and began blowing the minutes away until it was time to go. / As they left they passed once again the prisons where the wolves lay sentenced, though now their fur had been damped by winter's first rain. Where still the summer foxes paced made even more restless by the changeful weather. / And still the obedient elephant went bearing children on its back, swinging its trunk like an orchestra leader conducting an old-fashioned waltz. / Where the white-maned merry-go-round stallions raced, one a nose ahead, then the other, then coasted when the music-box stopped. / The homesick lion roared for home. The iron-feathered owl waited only for night to wing soundlessly into people's dreams and be back in his tree by morning. / [The brutal monkey]'s girlfriend, trapped out on a limb too fragile for him to follow, whimpered between fear of falling and fear of [him]. / In the haysmelling dark the quick gazelle tiptoed, rehearsing forever some animal's ballet in which she was sure to be the leading lady. / Deep in the primeval stone the ancient bear had curled, and this time would not be seduced outside for peanuts or people, Devil or daughter. / So they turned back at last to those streets whereon the wildest beast of all roamed free.
    • Leaving the zoo.
  • In the middle of the first act the boat was caught in a wash and the whole stage tilted a bit. It was by this time obvious to the front rows that Othello, with a bad job of makeup, was tilting slightly on his own. But retained sufficient presence of mind, when he needed to lean against the air, to bear against the tilt of the stage rather than with it. By this instinctive device Othello held the front rows breathless, wondering which way he'd fall should he guess wrong.
    • On an excursion steamer.
  • The Southern nights grew cooler. The rain came every day. / Long after Hallie had gone to bed one night Dove sat alone on their balcony. Every time a breeze from the river passed, another of the lights below went out, till it seemed the breeze was blowing them out. When the windows both sides of the streets were darkened he turned up the lamp in the small room where she slept. / Across her face a shadow lay, leaving her mouth defenseless to the light. She slept on not knowing how the river breeze had just blown out the last of the lights. Nor how the rainwind was making their room cooler than before. / Nor yet how softly now the night traffic moved two stories down. And how all the anguish he had felt for his ignorance was gone for the first time in his life. And nothing mattered, it seemed in that moment, but that this woman should sleep on, and never know that the wind was blowing out the lights. / Somewhere in the court below someone began playing a piano softly, as though fearing to waken her.
    • Dove Linkhorn and Hallie Breedlove.

Chapter 3[edit]

  • ‘But,’ Finnerty inquired coolly, ‘Didn't it take some time to get used to being smaller than other people after you'd been the biggest thing in sight for so long?’ [...] Finnerty's tone was serene. ‘I don't pretend to compete with you. But Stoodint here now is something else – he'll out-stud any man alive, Big Dad.’ / Schmidt turned on Dove with a swerve of his wheels. ‘Can you do anything I can't do better, bum?’ / ‘I can't do lots of things even able-bodied men can do, mister,’ Dove hurried to say; and even to his own ears that didn't sound quite right. / ‘For example,’ Finnerty helped him, ‘he could never get work as THE LIVING HALF.’
    • Pimp Finnerty teasing Legless Schmidt in front of Dove Linkhorn.
  • Then pressing his finger hard into Dove's chest – ‘You know who he meant by that “joy-of-your-trade” crack? You, that's who. You don't have to take it, Tex. I'm back of you.’ [...] ‘And when I back a man I back him all the way. For as you know, Finnerty don't fight. He just kills and drags out.
    • Pimp Oliver Finnery to Dove "Tex" Linkhorn.
  • Sometimes one of his glasses was full, sometimes both. In the bar mirror faces of people watched him too steadily. Along the bar faces of dolls watched the people. Faces of people and faces of dolls and his glass was full again. He had come to find somebody whose name was right on the tip of his tongue but just at that moment the juke began playing something about saints marching in. The people began marching behind the saints and the dolls behind the people as Dove began marching too. Where bells were ringing, trains kept switching, saints were marching, time was passing and his glass was full again.
    • Dove Linkhorn trying to drown sorrow.
  • Whatever it was Floralee had done to make her think God could no longer bear her, it didn't of necessity follow that He was the one who phoned for the Hurry-Up. / One moment the juke was beginning Please Tell Me How Many Times, the next the parlor was full of the boys in blue and someone smashed the glass of the juke – [...] / Where was Five when the box was smashed? Galloping from door to door in nothing more than her earrings and a bath-mat, hollering ‘Get them guys out!’ And rushing three tricks down the hall with their pants in their hands in as much of a hurry not to be witnesses as Five was anxious to prevent them. She shoved one out a window, another walked past a nabber with a bill in his hand, and the same nab said to another – ‘Uncle Charlie!’ And let him pass. / Where was Mama when the juke glass went? Studying a twenty-two-hundred-dollar receipt for down payment on a house and lot, six kennels and a pair of Doberman pinschers; and having her first misgivings. / Where was Finnerty when all this transpired? In a single-motor plane with two thousand two hundred in fives and tens, on his way to Miami to get his armpits tanned.
    • About prostitutes Floralee and Five, madam Mama, and pimp Finnerty.
  • ‘The best days of my life, my happiest time,’ a human dishrag called Pinky would recall, ‘was doing close-order drill in the evening with the national guard.’ / Pinky had stolen fifty feet of garden hose in lieu of back wages. That the back wages were largely imaginary didn't make the hose less real, and Pinky still had five months to go.
    • In jail.
  • Another was an old sad lonesome lecher with a face that had never been up from the cellar, who had nobody's sympathy at all; not even his own. The turnkey had nicknamed him ‘Raincoat’ – which was kinder than what the prisoners had named him. / This ancient simple satyr's offense had been nothing more dreadful than the devising of a time-and-money-saving operation. [...] Here and there, passing some woman who appeared deserving, he would fling the raincoat wide for her amazement and delight, then modestly button himself and modestly hurry on. / Talent can spring up anywhere.
    • In jail.
  • Raincoat's cell mate, for example, was a natural whose wife had had him locked up because he had made up his mind to have a baby by their fifteen-year-old daughter. Nobody could talk Natural Bug out of this. He couldn't be roasted or frozen out of it. He knew he was right in this. But Raincoat was the only one to whom he communicated his defense. / ‘He says the kid is a lot better-looking than his wife,’ Raincoat interpreted. ‘And not only that, but she's much younger.’
    • In jail.
  • ‘Blow wise to this, friend,’ he advised Dove, ‘it's always easier to convict a man of something he didn't do than it is to prove that what he actually was doing was a crime. That's why the nabbers are so much tougher on the man without a record than they are on the finished criminal product. They've got the finished product solved, they can nab him any time, so they can afford to be friendly. It's the bird who pops up on some corner they never seen him around there before, he claims he never been arrested, he got no needle marks, he don't act like a thief and they can't find a set of prints on him that worries them. They figure he must be some too-wise ghee. They got to find a crime to fit him. And if he's innocent that takes persuasion.’
    • In jail, "an old-timer named Cross-Country Kline" to Dove Linkhorn.
  • ‘But blow wise to this, buddy, blow wise to this: Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own. Never let nobody talk you into shaking another man's jolt. And never you cop another man's plea. I've tried 'em all and I know. They don't work. / Life is hard by the yard, son. But you don't have to do it by the yard. By the inch it's a cinch. And money can't buy everything. For example: poverty.
    • In jail, Cross-Country Kline to Dove Linkhorn.
  • ‘They jumped on my feet. They slapped my ears till I couldn't hear. They put the glare in my eyes and held the lids open till I thought I was going blind and all the time somebody I couldn't see kept hollering right into my ear at the top of his lungs. I got a pivot tooth now in place of one some ham-handed law cracked out, but I aced it out. Years later in stir I used to wake up thinking they were starting on me again, but I aced it. I aced it till one of my fluffs heard a radio broadcast 'n sent me a lawyer. That was when my real troubles begun.
    • In jail, Kline about the feds interrogating him.
  • ‘I don't mind getting roughed up, everybody gets roughed up. Everybody, in jail or out, is shaking somebody else's jolt. The thorn that sticks my side to this day is the one time in my life I was innocent was the one time that I got it.’ [...] Whatever happened, it was Country's consolation, he had Broomface where it pinched. He owed so much time here and there that even were he to serve it concurrently, he was sure to die owing at least fifty years. They'd never be able to collect.
    • In jail, Country Kline.
  • All of the inmates of Tank Ten were white. At night they heard laughter from the Negro tier one flight above, and most of the trusties were short-term Negroes. Murphy insisted it was his influence that kept the tank lily white, but Dove suspected privately that the authorities had something to do with it.
    • In jail.
  • These were neither the great gray wolves of the snowplain wilderness nor fanged cats treed and spitting; but only those small toothless foxes of summer someone had chased and someone had chained, barking at changes in the weather. / [...] / Their crimes were sickness, idleness, high spirits, boredom and hard luck. They were those who had failed to wire themselves to courts, state attorney's office or police. Hardly a stone so small but was big enough to trip them up and when they fell they fell all the way. / [...] / Lovers, sec-fiends, bugs in flight, the tricked, the maimed, the tortured, the terribly fallen and the sly. All those who are wired to nobody, and for whom nobody prays. / That the public defender defends by saying, ‘Your Honor, this man has had his chance.’
    • In jail, about "the inmates of Tank Ten". (Sic: "sec-fiend" is eye dialect for "sex-fiend".)
  • Bad air and boils – yet sometimes there came a day so blue it caught at the heart like a sense of loss – all these days too blue, all lost. Rainy days were melancholy but sunny ones were worse. When it was raining out there he could sink into a sullen half-dream where nothing could touch him. But blue days recalled his every folly and he'd think, ‘So much time gone! So little time left! Scarcely time left for a boy to rise!’
    • In jail, Dove Linkhorn.
  • ‘It don't do no good for a man to rise these days, son,’ was Country Kline's curious philosophy, ‘for that can't be done any longer except on the necks of others. And when you make it that way, all the satisfaction is taken out of it. Son, I hope you don't mind my saying so, but you got pimp wrote large all over you – but that's the sorriest way of all to rise, and the reason I'll tell you why – if God ever made anything better than a hustling girl He's kept it to Himself. There's no trick in not going down the drain if you don't live in the sink. But you take a woman who makes her living where the water is sucking the weaker bugs down and she don't go down, she's twice the woman that one who never had to fight for her soul is.’
    • In jail, Kline to Dove (contrast with Dove's similar lines above and below).
  • ‘I feel like I been everywhere God got land,’ Dove thought, ‘yet all I found was people with hard ways to go. All I found was troubles 'n degradation. All I found was that those with the hardest ways of all to go were quicker to help others than those with the easiest ways. All I found was two kinds of people. Them that would rather live on the loser's side of the street with the other losers than to win off by theirselves; and them who want to be one of the winners even though the only way left for them to win was over them who have already been whipped. / ‘All I found was men and women, and all the women were fallen. Sports of the world, poor bummies, poor tarts, all they were good for was to draw flies I was told. You could always treat one too good, it was said, but you never could treat one too bad. Yet I wouldn't trade off the worst of the lot for the best of the other kind. I think they were the real salt of the earth.
    • Dove Linkhorn.
  • In the mixed-up April of '32 the numbers of jobless rose to eight millions, two hundred thousand steelworkers took a fifteen percent wage cut and it took a cardinal to perceive that the country's economic collapse was actually a wonderful piece of luck, for every day it brought thousands closer to the poverty of Christ, who had been nowhere near before. For thousands it was the chance of a lifetime to bring Jesus' simplicity, the cardinal said, right into the home. All over the country men and women and even small children began taking advantage of this spiritual opportunity. All manner of little goodies like that were lying about in the mixed-up April of '32.
    • Narration.
  • There, in Dockery's Dollhouse [...] a straight-haired flat-chested hard-of-eye hustler called Tough Kitty was trying to get credit for just one little beer. / But the bartender, acting as oddly as Hoover, didn't seem to hear. / [...] / So she drew from the pocket of her faded blue jeans a small change-purse and emptied it on the bar: twelve pennies and one nickel. / ‘I got enough for a beer,’ she took count, ‘but not enough to get drunk on.’ And looked left-out of everything.
    • Kitty Twist (now Tough Kitty).
  • ‘More shameful things are worn by women on the open street these days than were worn in brothels a few years ago,’ the old man went on and on. And there was nobody to ask him how did he know what had been worn in brothels a few years ago. / ‘Even our little girls are turned out into the streets almost naked, inviting God's judgement on sin black as Sodom! Are we willing to pay the price?’ he asked, and answered his own question, ‘When it comes to God dealing with a nation's sin, there are no dollar days. Are we willing to pay the price?’ / They stared up at him indifferently. If they had the price of anything they would be in the movie or brothel, that look told.
    • Fitz Linkhorn preaching in 1932 Arroyo, Texas.
  • ‘If God made anything better than a girl,’ Dove thought, ‘He sure kept it to Himself.’ / That was all long ago in some brief lost spring, in a place that is no more. In that hour that frogs begin and the scent off the mesquite comes strongest.
    • Dove Linkhorn, last lines of the novel (contrast with Dove's and Kline's lines above).

Quotes about A Walk on the Wild Side[edit]

"Nelson Algren: The Message Still Hurts" (1990)[edit]

Russell Banks, 1990; as "Nelson Algren: The Message Still Hurts", The New York Times, April 29, 1990; as "Foreword", Thunder's Mouth's print edition of A Walk on the Wild Side, 1990.
  • It shouldn't surprise me that Nelson Algren, clearly one of the best novelists of his time, is not much read these days. It's the "kill the messenger" syndrome, I suppose, for the news that Algren's works brings us is not good news: if the world he describes is at all like our own, then it's not morning in America, and it hasn't been for a long, long time. [...] In A Walk on the Wild Side it's the early Depression, east Texas and New Orleans, old Perdido Street; his characters are pimps and prostitutes, con men, drug addicts and alcoholics, homeless wanderers, illiterate whites and blacks trying to "make an honest dollar in a crooked sort of way."
  • A Walk on the Wild Side, which Algren at times seemed to think little of, is to my mind an American classic, a home-grown version of the European Bildungsroman, to be read alongside Huckleberry Finn, The Red Badge of Courage and Native Son.
  • Because A Walk on the Wild Side is a permanent part of our literature, these people, who continue to live among us, will continue to be heard. That's all Nelson ever wanted his work to accomplish, and what writer could want more?

"Prophet of the neon wilderness" (2005)[edit]

Richard Flanagan, October 2005; as "Prophet of the neon wilderness", The Sunday Telegraph, January 29, 2006; as "Introduction", Canongate's digital edition of A Walk on the Wild Side, 2009.
  • Nelson Algren's life is terrifying in its proof that talent, love and a determination to speak truth to power can destroy a writer as surely as mediocrity and compromise. A Walk on the Wild Side, the last of Algren's novels to be published in his lifetime, is in consequence a most moving achievement.
  • While living through all this Algren began A Walk on the Wild Side. Later in his life Algren would consider it his best novel, ‘an American fantasy written to an American beat as true as Huckleberry Finn’.
  • Algren achieved all this in a lush language at once immediate and vernacular, but steeped in the tradition of his culture's greatest writers: the poetry of his sentences harked back to Whitman; his wry humour and vernacular power to Twain; his novelistic largeness to Melville; his pained humanity to Fitzgerald. [...] He was a naturalist who wrote unnaturalistic prose; an absurdist whose work reeked of reality; a realist whose best effects are often comic, a determined stylist who in the end believed passion mattered more than style; a passionate writer who fully understood that the measure of great writing was in its capacity to escape the writer's intentions, politics and passions.
  • Dove Linkhorn, Kitty Twist, Legless Schmidt, Oliver Finnerty, Reba, Hallie and all those Algren calls "the broken men and breaking ones; wingies, dingies, zanies and lop-sided kukes; cokies and queers and threadbare whores" are all in search of America, only for the reader to discover that they are America.

External links[edit]

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