Jan 192017

The Friend, A Novel by Perry Wolff

I had done a script or two for WHA, the University of Wisconsin’s radio station.  Live radio production was exciting. Tape had not been invented, and everything was done to precise time. The programs had to be exactly twenty-nine minutes and thirty seconds long. I liked the anxiety, the deadlines, and writing scripts for children. When I returned from Paris I looked for a job in radio. I freelanced some speculative scripts, but found nothing permanent.

Chicago wasn’t Paris, although its population was about the same. It never was a major center for writers, artists or composers. The University of Chicago is on the south side of the city, but intellectually it was a zone unto itself. It read, it criticized, it categorized; but very little wildly creative has ever come from it.

One center for serious fiction writers was Stuart Brent’s Seven Stairs Bookshop on Rush Street. The circle included Willard Motley, who had published Knock on any Door, Nelson Algren who was working on The Man with a Golden Arm, and me, rewriting The Friend. Motley and Algren didn’t get along because Willard was black and gay, but there was intellectual empathy. Their mutual subject matter was the underside and corruption of the city.

I was the odd man out, engrossed in my novel about World War II. The Friend (later re-titled Attack) is about the compromises I made to get John Robas out of combat. What I wanted it to be about were the reasons men stayed together while in combat. Discipline, to some degree, the fear of being seen as a coward if they obeyed the instinct of self-preservation and ran away, and the psychological bonding of men who saw death together.

The Friend was published in the late 40’s. The New York Times ran it as the first review in the book section. The critic said that my musings on friendship were superficial, but my descriptions of combat were excellent. On re-reading the review fifty years later, the critic was absolutely right.

The late ‘40’s were a time for Norman Mailer and James Jones who wrote many, many, many bloody words. Neither sounds well when read aloud. Terseness, either for the eye or ear, was unfashionable.

Some of the poetry I wrote during the war was published in The American Scholar, the Phi Beta Kappa magazine. The editor of the journal was Hiram Hayden, who was also the top editor at Crown publishers. I received a $250 advance for The Friend.  Hayden, himself a well published novelist, liked my concise style. But he reported to Mat Wartels, the publisher, who was undergoing psychoanalysis. He wanted more rambling Freud than terseness. His notes were so exasperating I told Hiram to send back the manuscript and I would send back the advance. It took courage, but Crown retreated.

Crown had to budget promotional funds either for my work or Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness. Their money went to Styron’s fine novel, and I found myself remaindered in major bookstores. I saw huge piles of my book being sold for a dollar. A kind cashier walked me to the books surrounding mine, and also being sold for a dollar: The Friend lay among Aristotle’s Poetics, Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, and Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Like many a graveyard, used book stores contain notables.

“It’s just business,” she said.

Nelson Algren and I played chess at Brent’s shop. We exchanged views between moves. When I told him I was learning to fly he thought it fascist. I told him he dressed like a Marxist who wanted to be a man of the people. I thought he regretted the Depression was over. I told him he ought to stop wearing jeans and a blue shirt with metal studs. Proletarian writing was finished and so was mock-proletarian costuming. Later, we became closer, particularly when he was researching The Man with a Golden Arm and I was researching my series on narcotics addiction.

Nelson had a French girl friend whose name I didn’t catch at the time. Simone de Beauvoir. He asked me if my wife spoke French because Simone wanted to shop at Marshall Field’s and needed a translator for the prices. In my post-war year in Paris I had heard of de Beauvoir and her lover Jean-Paul Sartre, but they were not celebrities on the north side of Chicago. I didn’t know then that she and Nelson had an affair that lasted over many years. Nelson was discrete. She wasn’t and wrote an account of their affair, which embarrassed him.

“For all her French elegance, it was indecent to write about me as a lover!” he told me a few years later. Communists are often sexual prudes.

Algren was deep in the criminal world. He met with whores, junkies, and went to the local prison to gossip with his contacts. He had been convicted of a crime and had served time in Texas.

Nelson lived next to a steel mill in Gary. He would drive into the city and meet me in at the University of Chicago to listen to Professor Joe Lohman, criminologist. Lohman had some unusual lecturers: criminals who had done time and who could speak about the practices of their professions. A former rum runner gave a lesson on how much it cost to buy protection from the Capone mob and Al Capone’s police before that gang was closed down.

The sessions had a mixed audience — student and spectators who often were ranking members of the Chicago’s Police Force in street clothes. Algren said there still was no difference between the criminals and the badges. The policemen were equally corrupt.

Nelson told me, “I go to the police stations and the jails. Cops and hoods trade gossip. It’s like listening to baseball players talking about who’s playing with who, and who’s been traded where.”

I thought Nelson had gone too far. But I should have listened more closely. The Chicago Police Force got me fired.

I found work at WBBM, the local CBS outlet. I was given the title of producer. I sat in a bullpen with twelve other producers. Most of our duties were to insert local commercials into network shows passing through to the Coast. The announcer arrived, I gave him the copy and he went into the studio. On my cue he read exactly twenty-seven or fifty seven seconds of inserts. One of the announcers for a second hand furrier was Mike Wallace.