...a wonderfully readable, passionately partisan biography ... In the course of making the case for Algren’s neglected work, Asher does something else nearly as valuable, which is to reframe—and to free from myth and obfuscation, much of it Algren’s own—the life: a life not just entertainingly full of incident but also inspiring and exemplary in a time when questions of art’s role in resisting the enemies of democracy and economic justice are newly immediate ... Asher devotes less real estate to critical analysis of the fiction itself than another literary biographer might ... In Asher, [Algren] gets the biographer any writer dreams of: thorough, smart, literate, and unabashedly on his subject’s side—a disciple, a role that puts him, as the book itself lays out, in excellent, even august company.
...[a] brilliant new biography ... Not every biographer of a writer knows how to locate the source of his subject’s creative impulses, but Asher does ... One of the strengths of Asher’s vivid, vastly insightful book is its joy at the achievements of its subject ... Asher’s biography makes clear the extent to which Algren became a victim of the paranoia of his times.
...[a] well-written and scrupulously researched biography ... Though he paints his portrait with a broad brush, Asher’s book is enjoyable not simply because it shows how Algren plied his trade or reacted to the world around him, but due to the little things Asher notes in passing ... Equally interesting, since Algren had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the truth, is the way Asher triangulates different versions of a given event, such as the discrepancies he notes between Algren’s and de Beauvoir’s accounts of her last Chicago visit; the result is a reasonable approximation of the truth ... One can only hope that efforts of remembrance like Never a Lovely So Real will help to return the author’s star to the literary firmament where it belongs.
Besides being larger in size and scope than any previous biography of this last celebrant of what once was called Proletarian Literature, Asher’s book is devotional and beautifully written, seven years in the making, its sentences capturing the very same mix of lyricism and street, hard truths and sentimentality that made Algren himself so special. It delves into Algren’s lifelong struggle to stay true to his credo, his soulful cry that the purpose of any writer is to stand up to power, to take the judge down from the bench, to give voice to the voiceless. And it delivers a wrenching portrait of a man who struggled to maintain his sanity and his spirit in a society that was well prepared to see its writers give up or sell out, but struggled to comprehend writers who persevered and paid the price as Algren did ... a terrific biography, not an easy one. With it, we welcome Asher into the circle. It is in some important way the first biography of Algren to be written, because, although it’s technically the fourth or fifth, it’s the first really long one, and it’s the first to let you walk in Algren’s shoes instead of looking at him through a microscope like a specimen in a petri dish. Walking in Algren’s shoes is hard work.
... generally sturdy ... Mr. Asher has had much fuller access than previous biographers to FBI files that detail the bureau’s long surveillance of Algren. There is no denying its effects, but Mr. Asher exaggerates them into “the cause of his career’s decline” and swaddles an overworked political thesis with facile boilerplate about the 1950s. Algren’s own character flaws had plenty to do with his inability to sustain his gifts and career ... When not emphasizing politics, Mr. Asher is levelheaded and illuminating. His book is also peppered with unusually charming and informative footnotes. There are moments of callow discovery and the occasional gaffe, But Never a Lovely So Real has heft and heart, and it displays the sort of respect and loyalty to its subject that the novelist paid to the struggling, real-life people he put into his books.
Many of Algren’s biographers were content to write of him as a working-class malcontent stuck in a decades-old style of literary realism. But Asher is a writer of his moment—that is, this moment—and he sees something timely in Algren’s tough-guy devotion to his underclass protagonists: a plea to acknowledge the ruthlessness we regularly deal out to social failure. He wants badly to understand the man for whom this devotion was a central metaphor ... Never A Lovely So Real is a work of love and prodigious research and, as such, deserves to be honored. Asher has a talent for delivering a great deal of anecdotal information with the kind of relish that feels delicious, and certainly there is much in this biography that any scholar of Nelson Algren’s work will consult with profit. But in a curious way the book fails to get inside Algren; he never really comes to life in its pages ... These caveats aside, I am glad to have read this book and even gladder that it has been published in these most depressing of political times. It serves as an engaging reminder of what a life informed by passionate conviction can look like.
Asher, the third biographer to tackle Algren’s puzzling story, was the first to see the full documentation of the agency’s long surveillance of the outspoken writer and champion of the poor and disenfranchised, and that access enables him to bring a new perspective to the unconventional, righteously literary, and rough-and-tumble life of the author ... a vigorously detailed yet swiftly flowing narrative ... As he presents Algren as a seminal American writer focused on injustice in this captivating, redefining, and sharply relevant biography, Asher also reveals how the insidious abuse of power by the federal government destroys lives.
[A] definitive portrait ... By a combination of meticulous research and a smooth prose style, Asher has fashioned a narrative that is both a joy to read and is utterly convincing. I’ve been heavily invested in Algren’s work for over thirty years, but learned many new things from this book ... One of the most valuable contributions Asher has made is to flesh out the supporting characters in Algren’s life ... Through three-dimensional portraits of the people and places key to the man’s life, Asher has fashioned as full a picture of Algren as any of his long-suffering fans could hope for ... Anyone who reads Asher’s book will be convinced that Nelson Algren deserves a place in the canon.
There’s a breeziness to the book’s tone that suits the first half of Algren’s life, even as he passes through phases of stoicism, penury, and suicidal depression. As Algren’s career reaches its peak, Asher commits a few acts of unforced corniness ... Asher is an insightful literary critic, a charming hagiographer, and, occasionally, a reluctant scold. He blames Algren for distorting his own public image over the last two decades of his life. It’s hard to escape the implication that if Algren had died in his forties—instead of from a heart attack at seventy-two—he might be remembered today as a legend, like Agee. As his title suggests, Asher is attracted to the sentimental streak in Algren’s work...Asher’s disappointment in his subject’s bitter turn comes through in the second half of Never a Lovely So Real, but he also shows that Algren had plenty of reasons for his disillusionment and increasingly erratic behavior ... To his credit, Asher never entirely gives up on him, and his book succeeds in filling the reader with the desire to read Algren’s books.
In the thoroughgoing Never a Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren, Colin Asher sculpts the writer's checkered life story into something that would have pleased him: a ripping good tale ... [a] consummate biography.
...The timing of Asher’s book...is fortuitous, because many Americans are now preoccupied by economic and class disparities in ways not seen since the Depression. Asher also obtained access to a virtually unredacted copy of Algren’s lengthy F.B.I. file ... The literary gossip in this biography, much of it drawn from letters, is intriguing, witty and sometimes acidic ... Asher never quite arrives — this is a compliment, not a criticism — at a persuasive explanation for Algren’s long literary decline, before his death in Sag Harbor ... But when a great writer stops writing, something internal as well as external is always in play. We are currently experiencing a revival of interest in writers — white and black, male and female — shaped by the uncertainties of the 1930s in ways that resonate strongly today. This biography provides an invaluable introduction to one of the best of them.
... Asher makes a strong case for Algren’s enduring value as a social critic, if not a social novelist, and lays out proof that candor will always be seen as a threat by authorities ... The FBI file doesn’t overwhelm Asher’s story, but it guides its sensibility; Never A Lovely So Real is a critical biography, but less of Algren’s output than of the culture he lived in. Asher suggests, not unfairly, that Algren would have been more of a towering figure in American letters were critical tastes not so aggressively booshwa after World War II, or if the feds found bigger fish to fry ... The tradeoff for this line of argument is that it’s not much of a defense of his prose. As an advocate for Algren’s fiction, Asher can be as disappointing a salesman as Algren’s father was a mechanic — his discussions of the novels themselves are mainly extended plot summaries that make Algren’s characters seem like flotsam on a turgid river, followed by sketches of the critical reception they received.
... a thorough, admiring, and, most likely, definitive biography ... With vigorous, poetic detail, Asher reconstructs Algren’s formative experiences of poverty during the Depression and Army service during WWII, his burst of fame during the Cold War and subsequent struggles, and his twilight years as a mentor to writers such as Don DeLillo ... Along with examining important relationships in Algren’s life, Asher reads Algren’s work carefully and well ... relies on the primary material assembled by previous biographers, filling in the blanks with a nearly unredacted version of Algren’s FBI file. The result is a generous, stylish portrait of an impulsive, directionless outsider who nonetheless established a place among the lions of mid-20th century American literature.
... a thoroughly researched, empathetic look at the life of the irascible, controversial writer ... Although Asher tries mightily to counter that image, his findings often confirm them. Algren was certainly a hard drinker, thin-skinned, and sometimes paranoid ... [Asher] offers evenhanded readings of Algren’s works ... A brisk, well-documented homage.