Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Never Come Morning

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, June 20, 2001

Bruno got the feeling, all the way down, that Comisky was boiling with rage. Well, that was a cop for you, changeable as a woman. They got sore automatically at anything behind bars. The more humbly a man looked out at Comisky the worse Comisky wanted to treat him. It was part of being a Comisky to believe in no man’s humility: humility was a challenge. It was part of being a Comisky to call that challenge.

Nelson Algren’s Never Come Morning goes beyond being a story about Chicago corruption. This is a story of the corruption of the soul of the poorest poor in the land where, when opportunity knocks, you spit out your teeth and a stream of blood follows.

AuthorNelson Algren
Length336 pages
Book Rating8

Never Come Morning” reads like a fantasy tale of hell, or a subterannean world of stifling darkness. That is Algren’s Chicago. It is a story about a young boxer and his “girlfriend” in the Polish 26th ward of Chicago in the late thirties. Casimir “Casey” Benkowski, “a pole with an army haircut”, is a down and out fighter coaching the neighborhood kids in “baseball, boxing, theft and hoodlumism”, though he preferred baseball and boxing. “They involved less personal risk.” The mastermind behind the 26th Ward Warriors is Bonifacy “Barber” Konstantine. One of his kids, Bruno “Lefty Biceps” Bicek, seventeen years old but he looks eighteen, is torn between baseball and boxing, but as no White Sox scouts have been showing up at the Ward Warriors practices, it looked like boxing was it. He had a sick mother. There was a girl he liked at the pool hall. He needed money.

So they pushed over a rogue illegal slot machine. Illegal because they all were, rogue because it wasn’t part of the syndicate:

This was something bigger than fruit stealing on Division. This was big time. Then a slow thought broke over his mind, leaving a cold spot of fear in his stomach: What of the men who syndicated slot machines? That was something different than dealing with the police. The slot-machine syndicate was big business, and big business didn’t fool.

“What about the syndicate, Case?” He asked as coolly as he could, looking at Finger to see if Finger had thought of that.

“Glad you asked that, Lefty,” Benkowski said slowly, “it shows you’re on them toes. But this is private stuff, it’s a ringer the spooks been hidin’ in the back.”

From the Barber to Casey to Lefty. Barber’s giving up on Casey, but Casey claims to be able to get fights for Lefty, and that’s better than knocking off slot machines.

Lefty has a girlfriend, Steffi Rostenkowski, the widow Rostenkowski’s daughter. The widow ran a poolroom, and lived behind it. But where Lefty’s strong with his girl he ain’t strong with his friends, the others trained in hoodlumism with Casey Benkowski.

Bruno Bicek from Potomac Street had his own cunning. He’d argue all day, with anyone, about anything, in daylight, and always end up feeling he’d won, that he’d been right all along. He’d refute himself, in daylight, for the mere sake of an argument. But at night, alone, he refuted no one, denied nothing. He saw himself close up and clearly then, too clear for any argument.

None of the characters in “Never Come Morning” are all that bright. Bicek (none too bright himself) counts on one hand all the “brains” in the ward, most of them going to aldermen and police officers.

The story is about Lefty coming to terms, such as they are, with his “hoodlum” friends, his boxing career, his girlfriend, and himself--but not so much, because life in Chicago for Algren isn’t about coming to terms, it’s about survival. The choices are all there, the life experiences, but they take different turns than you might expect in New York or Hollywood. If you’ve read Algren before you know not to expect the brightly-lit singing and dancing happy ending, but you also know, there’s always hope. Even so far down the characters can’t even see beyond the ward boundaries, there’s some hope. And the crazy uselesness of that hope, the hopelessness of it, is what this story is really about.

Algren’s work has always been appreciated more by other writers than by Chicagoans. (The French translation of “Never Come Morning” was by Jean-Paul Sartre--this itself must have been an interesting story.) The edition I have also has a fascinating introduction by Kurt Vonnegut, a very short piece about Algren’s death, and his writing style.

Why didn’t he soften his stories, with characters with a little wisdom and power who did all they could to help the dehumanized? His penchant for truth again shoved him in the direction of unpopularity. Altruists in his experience were about as common as unicorns, and especially in Chicago. Was there anything he expected to accomplish with so much dismaying truthfulness? He would be satisfied were we to agree with him that persons unlucky and poor and not very bright are to be respected for surviving, although they often have no choice but to do so in ways unattractive and blameworthy.

If any Algren book exemplifies this, “persons unlucky and poor and not very bright,” surviving “in ways unattractive and blameworthy,” it is “Never Come Morning”. This is a deeply moving novel, the rare novel about characters you can’t really like, but still are inexorably caught in a voyeuristic desire to see how their choices play out, drawing you back for multiple reads. A fascinating book, about a fascinating but dark world: Chicago, 1940.

Never Come Morning

Nelson Algren

Recommendation: Purchase

If you enjoyed Never Come Morning…

For more about slums, you might also be interested in Ask the Dust, Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, and Tortilla Flat.