I have read almost everything Nelson Algren wrote and I've always been a big fan of his. His prose can be taut and terse or improvisational and jazzy, and when he was good there wasn't a better writer anywhere. This novel, a fictionalization of the life of Ruben "Hurricane" Carter, contains a great deal of thinly disguised factual information, court documents, and personalities surrounding the trial, conviction, release and retrial of Carter for murdering 3 people in a New Jersey bar in 1966. Renamed Ruby Calhoun in this fact-filled fiction, the main character is an enigma, the kind Algren was able to weave successfully in Never Come Morning and The Man With The Golden Arm, but unlike the main characters of those novels it seemed to me that Algren was holding something back this time, that he didn't give Ruby Calhoun quite enough nourishment to become an unforgettable character, flawed but true to himself. Written before Carter was released from jail, the novel ends in a dreamlike cloud of elusive truth and an unsatisfying admission that the one person who could clear him would never be able to, cementing in place the bars Calhoun was tragically put behind.
For me, knowing about the case and its eventual outcome makes it difficult to feel the force of this novel and since I cannot "unknow" what I know it had a diminished impact so I have to admit that I cannot give this novel an unbiased review. The biggest question I have, though, is if Algren was as sure of Carter's innocence as he demonstrates in this novel why didn't he write it as non-fiction? He was certainly no stranger to non-fiction, and frankly his great "novel" period was long over by the time he finished this book (it was published a year or so after his death). I still admire Algren a great deal and the book is worth the time to read, but it lacks the intimacy of his earlier works--the seediness of the location isn't a character as it is in his best novels--it's as if he is truly an outsider trying hard to make an audience sympathize with people he doesn't quite understand or connect with. Forced and a bit artificial.
Regardless of what you may know or think about Ruben Carter, this novel didn't change my mind about the case or my opinion of those involved. Perhaps if it was told with the conviction of a true story instead of as a fiction told with a gasp of hope it might have swayed me. Either way, Ruby Calhoun is not a likeable character in any respect, and as Algren tells it, this shouldn't matter if he were wrongly convicted in a miscarriage of justice. I admire the sentiment but this one didn't have the fire, the rage that it needed to move me as his earlier works have done.