Sunday, February 28, 2016

"A Bottle of Milk for Mother" (1941)

Read story by Nelson Algren online.

Nelson Algren's 1941 O. Henry Award nominee is something of a one-trick pony—all flinty Chicago mobster slang, featuring a police interview of one Bruno "Lefty" Bicek concerning a robbery and shooting death. "A Bottle of Milk for Mother" (the title refers to Lefty's attempt at an alibi) can get so heavy on the Chicago wiseguy dialect that it's easy to bog down parsing what is being said in the dialogue passages. That's annoying—dialect is notoriously difficult to do well, as there's a necessary tension between the accuracy of the rendering and the clarity of its meaning. Algren's attempt is not bad. I've seen worse, and it does bring the Chicago flavor. But in general the story is so dated as to read as quaint, or "colorful." It hinges most on the shock of the naturalistic Chicago cops and criminals of the Depression era, the sight of them in their environs, interacting. The cops are cynical and corrupt. Lefty is brutal and dim. Hard street life scenes are dropped in all over: Lefty's life is about accepting the conditions or escaping them. He attempted first to escape them, as a reasonably talented boxer and baseball player, but now he's leaning more toward accepting them. That involves a life of crime one way or another. In the back and forth of the police interview, the cops finally corner Lefty and he realizes he's going to take the fall for the crime, which he probably did, we see by the evidence presented. The last line of the story poignantly underlines both the motivation to escape and the acceptance of the conditions: "'I knew I'd never get to twenty-one anyhow,' Lefty told himself softly at last." Yes, it's tragic, but equally bad and worse things happen now, and I'm left mostly unmoved. There's just not enough going on beyond the Chicago trappings, which are the featured attraction in this story but no longer read as vividly as I'm sure they once did. To my jaded contemporary ears it comes off more like Damon Runyon than perpetual human tragedy. In this case, for better or worse, the "colorful" swamps the "human." I have a lot of regard for Nelson Algren. He's one of those writers whose reputation intrigues me and I've always meant to read more, beyond a handful or so of his stories over the years. What always appeals to me are the moods and tones, the gritty city scenes and the plain way they are described. But he has also seemed hit and miss in my limited experience. "A Bottle of Milk for Mother" is more of a miss for me.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

The Neon Wilderness by Nelson Algren


  1. I like a good short story but seems like every time I try to read one in the NY-er I give up bored w/ it. Particularly weird b/c the last collection of short stories I've read was George Saunder's Tenth of December, which I liked, but a number of them turn's out originally appeared in the NY-er. So, another summer project: read more short stories. But Algren wouldn't have appeared in the NY-er would he? Where did this stuff appear first? True Detective? Saturday Evening Post? Popular paperbacks? Just curious.

  2. I appreciate the problem. I think my tendency is to look at stories the "wrong way" -- reading anthologies like novels, 50 or 60 or more pages at a time in bursts, so a few stories at a time generally. Part of what I'm trying here, I guess, is to slow it down, although it's still hard not to rush. Algren's story was published originally in The Southern Review (weirder placement than any you mentioned), and did win an O. Henry prize, still awarded, but I suspect with less impact now. Part of what I'm finding, by the way, as with many of my excursions into true crime, is that the New Yorker publishes a ton of first-rate stuff. It is often the source for many of the stories collected in all three anthologies I'm working my way through. And yet I've never had a subscription to it in which I'm able to faithfully read, or even skim, every issues. Guess we have to file that under good problem to have!

  3. Nelson Algren is, in some ways, the Kevin Bacon of 20th Century writers. Connecting the literary world by Six Degrees, Algren is never spoken of with the same reverence as Faulkner or Fitzgerald; but his name nevertheless comes up often and for good reason. Algren wrote “cinematically” so it is no surprise that two of his novels were turned into movies: The Man with the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side. The former inspired the title of Ian Fleming’s 1965 novel which was turned into a 1975 Bond film. And the latter inspired singer/literature major Lou Reed to write an unforgettable ode to some of the Andy Warhol era’s most eccentric characters.
    Hemingway admired Algren’s writing, and other contemporaries recognized Algren’s talent with various writing awards.
    So the question is, why is “A Bottle of Milk for Mother” included in so many anthologies? Can we discuss Algren’s short story without referring to Carl Sandburg’s immortal poem “Chicago?” Chicago is “wicked” and “crooked” and “brutal” but it is nevertheless the “city that works.” Chicago is a Hog Butcher and Tool Maker and Stacker of Wheat and the City of Big Shoulders.
    In this context, is Algren’s short story a dated “slice of life” in a forgotten period of American immigration? Or is it something more, something that grabs even the readers of today, because it places a cautious but eager finger on the very pulse of the inextinguishable American Dream? I would argue that “A Bottle of Milk for Mother” endures because it does embody and glorify the American Dream of success and power and the good life, which some attain, but some fall short, thrust mercilessly into the world of defeat and addiction and criminality and, in the extreme case-like Lefty Bicek—the world of Capital Punishment.
    But what truly prevents “A Bottle of Milk for Mother” from becoming preachy or over blown, is Algren’s careful attention to the little details. The police detective breaking Bicek’s knife blade because “it is four inches to the heart.” The weirdly logical spreading of a haircut gone bad into a symbol of skin headed tyranny. The slippery way that a mugging can unintentionally turn into murder…but why was it necessary to have a gun there in the first place?
    Whether “A Bottle of Milk for Mother” is a great short story or simply a mediocre effort by a sometimes great writer, I find myself reading it over and over and over again.

  4. You make a good case for this story and remind me why I want to read more Algren. Thank you!