College professors strain to convince novitiates that the boring "masterpieces" of Western literature (Hemingway, Melville, James, etc.) deserve their reputations solely from the "test-of-time" standard. But I, for one, do not believe any worthwhile art work can be judged by reputation, consensus, or old age. That is why my admiration for two very different novels — Jerzy Kosinski's Painted Bird and Nelson Algren's Walk on the Wild Side - makes it impossible for me to value one over the other.
The novels are comparable only in their unrelenting depictions of humans as conniving but impotent carnivores, offered choices by an omniscient, uncaring puppeteer. The terrain covered in both is vast, the format is picaresque, but the conclusions drawn are identical: resigned despair.
In The Painted Bird you have the atrophied every-waif, hustled from parents to gypsies, superstitious fishwives, and lunatics during the Nazi scourge of East Europe. The child has no identity and cannot distinguish savagery from civility. The tale is told in cold, spartan narrative slices, devoid of emphasis. For once the "banality of evil" theme unfolds as a simple matter of fact. The incidents are cleansed of melodrama, and the documentation is spare: a child's eyes gouged from their sockets and crushed by a drunken behemoth's boots; an old crone douched with manure while crazed villagers revel in delirium; the constant dread of the approaching Nazi Huns.
It is a tract, but not a didactic one. Kosinski records but offers no editorials, which is perhaps what makes the work so eerie. He used the same technique for good novels such as Steps and Cockpit, a tentative one like Passion Play,; and a miserable one, Pinball. Good or bad, though, he broke his own spell: like the kid in The Painted Bird, he was incapable of feigning innocence. This is one of those rare gifts impossible to renounce or replicate.
That detached ingenuousness does not exist in Algren's Walk on the Wild Side. It is a self-conscious work on the level of the guttersnipe naturalism of Lewis, Dreiser, Wright, and Dos Passos. The transitions between rhapsodic narrative and the language of the dives, whorehouses, and halfway houses in New Orleans' French Quarter are, to put it delicately, jarring and upsetting. The novel's milieu is the hopeless world of the dispossessed. There is no promise of a better life for Algren's characters; but with that acknowledgment, the dim glimmer of hope, faith, and charity keeps them struggling to find a resolution. The vision is dark and desperate but all of a piece. And like Kosinski, Algren could never match this literary triumph. They say that writers are fortunate if they have one great book to deliver; Kosinski and Algren illustrate that presumption eloquently.
But these are not my sole candidates; here are the runners-up: Babbitt, Crime and Punishment, An American Dream, Crash, Going After Cacciato, The Second Coming, and The Long Goodbye. You may graciously 86 anything by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cozzens, Hardy, Ellman, James, and Wolfe (Thomas and Tom).
But I refuse to die before either the Chargers make the playoffs again or I understand the point of things like Absalom, Absalom!, Terra Nostra, the Koran, and Finnegans Wake.
I may live forever.