Chicago: City on the Make is a book, but it is not a story. It is a story, but it is not a tale. It tells a tale, but it does not have a plot. It has a plot, but it does not have character. It has character, but it has no tale.
If you understand any of that, then you understand Chicago: City on the Make and you understand Nelson Algren, because essentially his story amounts to words that have no purpose or meaning other than to fit into the complex prose he weaves for the story.
To be sure, that prose is beautiful. “” It almost sounds lyrical. In fact, in one section, while discussing the many faces of Chicago, it becomes lyrical: “One for the white collars and one for the blue collars, for our museums like cathedrals and for our cathedrals like museums….” It almost sounds lyrical, and is for sure pleasing to the ear and to the eye, but at the end of reading it one is forced to glance curiously at the page and utter an astonished, “What?”
The words are beautiful, but alone they are just what they claim to be: words. Perhaps some of the book is unintelligible to us because we do not have the vocabulary that Algren did, or because of the time differences, but in parts the story is just confusing.
Algren does get many parts of Chicago right. We are a city of crooks, and are frequently led by politicians that could greet crowds with, “Fellow hoodlums!” The mayor and late governor are two such examples of these people, but for more just pick an alderman at random.
There is also beauty in this city, although Algren seems for the most part to go to the wrong places for it, and at times seems a bit delusional. He tells the audience that the criminals in Chicago have, “hearts of gold.” This statement to me is ludicrous and proves that Algren was either too dreamy or had too much vodka. Criminals, who seem to be held up to a high standard in this work, are never described as being as bad as they actually were. I doubt Capone had a heart of gold; he was in it for the money. I have no doubt that the hundreds of innocents who were victims of his crimes, or the not so innocent victims of his violence. It seems that Algren is pointing at crime and corruption and saying, “How cute we are here in Chicago with all these mobsters and crooked politicians.”
In conclusion, it seems to me that Algren was like a lover that is so in love with their new beau that they have not yet realized that lover’s flaws, or refuses to recognize them. They simply sit there and spout off bad poetry, and ignore the fact that their lover has a bad side. The same is true for Algren, who seems to totally ignore the people hurt by his beloved city, in his poem, Chicago, City on the make.