Somebody in Boots

I started to read Nelson Algren‘s Somebody in Boots several years ago. I had just been laid off from a job, and I badly needed cheering up. Unfortunately, Somebody in Boots is not the sort of book you should read when you need cheering up. I put it aside, and it’s not until recently that I worked myself up to finish it. First published in 1935, it is Algren’s first novel. It didn’t sell well at the time, and it’s not hard to see why. This book is a glimpse into Hell.

Cass McKay lives with his abusive father and his brother and sister in a small town in Texas. His life is so bleak and hopeless that he actually envies the tramps who pass through town. At least they get to move around. HIs family eventually falls apart under the pressure of poverty and of alcohol. Cass leaves home and starts riding the rails himself.

Whatever romantic notions you may have about a hobo’s life will be pretty much demolished by this book. Algren describes in pitiless detail the many miseries of this existence: loneliness, boredom, lack of food, lack of sleep, eating bad food in soup kitchens. The hobos in this book live in continual fear of being arrested by the police or of being beaten by railroad dicks.

One problem that I’m sure that many people will have with this book is that Cass is not a good person. Among other things, he takes part in the gang rape of a woman. Later, he almost rapes an adolescent girl. He is a racist, as is almost everybody he meets. (The world depicted in this book is saturated with racism. The Black and Mexican characters get the worst of it.) Cass is clearly a product of his brutal environment, but Algren doesn’t try to soften the edges of his personality for that reason. If we feel any sympathy for Cass, it’s because some of the people he meets are even worse than he is.

Cass eventually winds up in a nightmarish Texas jail. There he comes under the influence of a fellow inmate, a sadistic bully named Nubby O’Neil. Nubby takes Cass under his wing, promising to take Cass to Chicago after they get out. Although Algren doesn’t press the point, there is clearly something vaguely fascistic about the relationship between the two men. In Chicago they break into a store. The police show up, and in the confusion Cass takes off with all the money. While hiding from Nubby, he takes up with a prostitute, Nora. Cass develops a genuine tenderness and concern for Nora. The irony is that this seeming humanization of Cass merely leads to a new criminal career. He and Nora start robbing drugstores in the manner of Bonnie & Clyde.

Towards the end of the book, Cass befriends a Black man, and the two of them attend Communist Party meetings, where they hear Black and white workers talk about fighting back against their exploiters. For a time it seems as though Cass is going to be redeemed after all, but Algren doesn’t go that route. Some people have accused Algren of being too pessimistic, but it seems to me that he was trying to say that there are no easy answers. This is a powerful and disturbing book. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it is well worth reading nonetheless.

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