Book Review – Nelson Algren’s

Somebody in Boots

Image courtesy of Goodreads

The miners came in ‘49
The whores in ‘51
They jungled up in Texas
And begot the native son

-Old Song

Somebody in Boots was originally titled Native Son, but Nelson Algren gave this title away to Richard Wright who used it to his great advantage.

Boots were a symbol of power, status, and authority. When someone in boots was approaching, you knew you were in trouble: “Someone was coming. Someone in boots. Cass heard his boots moving faster and faster. Such boots were two despisers of small things. They were high heeled sharp pointed, embedded deeply with sharp pointed spikes, shining with sun or bright with rain wet.”

This was Nelson Algren’s first novel and it has all the raw power and awkwardness of unrefined prose. Algren, himself, did not much care for the novel and would rework some of the material into a much better book, A Walk on the Wild Side. He wrote Somebody in Boots in 1936 and didn’t write another novel until 1940. By the time he got to The Man with the Golden Arm he was writing masterful prose and he made his words sing. But, he never lost his edge.

And this is an edgy novel to say the least. Personally, I loved this book and was in its thrall all the way through to the end. It has unforgettable characters and vivid situations and opens a window onto the events occurring in this country almost 100 years ago during the great depression, or the “great trouble” as it was described by one of the characters. The novel ends in Chicago during the 1933-34 World’s Fair. It is a novel of casual racism, police brutality, sexism, and misogyny. It might also be considered an anti-capitalist screed. It details he lives of hobos, homeless, and the haunted.


Cass McKay was a poor young man from the hills of West Texas. He lived in a one room shack with a dirt floor with his brother, sister and a brute of a father. He left home after a savage fight broke out between his brother and father and started riding the rails at the tender age of seventeen. First he went to New Orleans where he got his throat cut by a pimp in whore house. He then went back to Texas for couple of years the hit the road again drifting back and forth between Chicago and Texas, and all points south. He had a lot of adventures along the way.


“Wherever he walked that winter, whether in New Orleans along icy docks or on Railroad Street in Baton Rouge, he saw the vast army of America’s homeless ones; the boys and old women, the old men and young girls, a ragged parade of dull gray faces, begging, thieving, hawking, selling and whoring. Faces haggard and hungry, and cold, and afraid; as they passed, booted men followed and watched.”
In Chicago “He walked up and down West Madison Street every day one ragged bum among ten thousand ragged bums.” He met a girl there by the name of Norah who was down on her luck. She had been working as a seamstress in a sweat shop and lost that job for mouthing off to the boss. She then started working a strip club called Little Rialto after seeing an ad in the Chicago Tribune: “WANTED: DANCER. EXP. PREF. APPLY HAUSER’S RIALTO.-S. STATE”


Cass got involved with her and they started knocking off drugstores together. One night they got caught and Cass end up doing 10 months in the joint. Norah got away.


Racism and police brutality quite often make an appearance on the page and sometimes they intersect as they do in the following passage illustrating once again that the more things change the more they stay the same. Black lives mattered then about as much as they do now.


“One Sam Phillips, black as ink and Alabama born, was in Chicago only two days when he got picked up on South Prairie Avenue by Sergeant M___ of the South Park Police. Sure the boy looked suspicious-he was in rags, and he had no place to sleep and he was a nigger. So what ? So M___ says, “Run eight-ball, or I’ll put you in for vag.” Sam Phillips didn’t know very much, he’d only been in town two days, but Sam did know that he didn’t like jails, and that he could run pretty fast all right. Two hundred yards I’ll give you,” the sergeant offered-and black Sammy Phillips just took it on the lam. He ran 20 feet; M___ dropped to one knee in the proper manner and let her flicker, one through the legs and five to the belly- but he got his promotion so, I guess it’s all right.”


I think it is interesting to go back and read the earlier works of authors you love, like I love Algren. That way you can see their development over the years as an artist. I wouldn’t recommend Somebody in Boots to the newbie Algren fan, but if you have read all his other work, this is a fascinating read. I would recommend, rather, The Man with the Golden Arm, or Never Come Morning. Both excellent.

ALL NIGHT DINER

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Night of the all-night diners, the yellow window machine shop night where daylight was being prepared on lathes . Night of the thunderous anvils preparing the cities ironheart for tomorrow’s iron traffic. Night of the city lovers, the Saturday night till Sunday morning lovers, Making Love on a rented bed with the rent not due till Monday.

-Nelsen Algren, Man with the Golden Arm

Billie Holiday Meets Neslon Algren

Once Nelson Algren accompanied Studs Terkel to see Billie Holiday perform. Here’s how he tells the story. Billie’s voice was shot by that time but the gardenia in her hair was fresh. Ben Webster was backing her on tenor sax. There was only 10 or 15 customers in the joint. Sad. Lady Day sang “Fine and Mellow,” and “Willow, Willow Weep for Me.” I was crying and I looked around and all the other customers were crying too. She still had something that distinguishes the artist from the performer.
After her performance Nelson and I met with her in her dressing room which was in reality just a storeroom. Lady bade us to sit. Nelson slouched in the shadows against the wall. She patiently answered all my questions which I am sure she had been asked a thousand time before. When the conversation ended she looked over to the slouching figure in the darkness and asked, “Who is that man?”
Nelson explained that he and she both had the same publisher. “The Man With the Golden Arm” and “Lady Sings the Blues” had both been published by Doubleday.
“You’re all right,” she said to him.
“How do you know?” he asked.
“You’re wearing glasses.”
He laughed. “I know some people with glasses who’ve got dollar signs for eyes.”
“You’re kind.”
“How can you tell?”
“Your glasses.”