Thursday, April 25, 2013

Short Story Club: "How the Devil Came Down Division Street" by Nelson Algren

Hey! Welcome to Short Story Club. Glad you could make it. Come on in and grab a seat. Jami was just about to tell us what she thought of this month's story— and there should be a shrimp cocktail floating around here somewhere. Jami?

“How the Devil Came Down Division Street” is a nice snapshot of Algren’s world view, a view that permeated the many novels and short stories that followed, a world view that can be summed up nicely by a quote from the story: “The devil lives in a double-shot.”

This quote sets the tone for a tale that, at its conclusion, is an introspective look into the mind of a man not quite thirty years old, a man who has yet to overcome what his thirteen year old self saw, what he didn’t see, and what he feared because of the space between the two perspectives.  Roman is the son of a renowned drunk, a street performer, a sad excuse of an accordion player who doesn’t live with his family so much as he has a place to sleep when he returns home in the mornings after a night of roaming the streets for pennies.

Roman’s father hears a constant knocking at the door of their home, at least that is what he tells his family but no one believes him.  Rather, Roman and his twin siblings think their father is crazy. They share a bed at night when he is philandering or at worse, begging and in the daytime while their father sleeps it off, the children go to school and pretend he is different.  Their mother doesn’t encourage nor does she dissuade her children from feeling this way and by allowing the speculation, she is implicit in the reactions her children have to their father, a mixture of  embarrassment, shame, and ultimately, misunderstanding.

One day Roman’s father returns without his accordion.  Things change.  He doesn’t wander the streets at night any longer.  He becomes a husband to their mother again, takes a job as a janitor but, he takes a bed too.  The knocking is heard by Roman.  He believes his father, doesn’t think he is crazy any longer but his mother does the unthinkable and trades the sanity of her son for the newfound respectability of her husband.  So  Roman then, at age 17 is pushed out, finds himself with nowhere to spend his nights, no place to call his own and so he takes to the bars himself.  As Algren puts it, “he came to think of the dawn, when the taverns closed and he must go home as the bitterest hour of the day.”  

The bitterest hour of the day.  That’s where Nelson Algren takes the reader and with straightforward language and crisp descriptions, Roman is any one of us or all of us, giving up our accordions for a place to sleep, a place to call our own.

 —Jami McFatter Balkom is an attorney, practicing in Panama City, Florida who writes short story reviews for her blog,  She is currently writing fiction, working on a novel of literary fiction and a series of short stories centered around her hometown in northwest Florida.

So what did the rest of you think of the story?


  1. I had actually never heard of Nelson Algren before stumbling across this story, Jami. Inaugural National Book Award Winner? Lover of Simone de Beauvoir? And character in her fiction along with Sartre and Camus? Who knew? Thanks for sharing this!

    The more I think about this story, the closer I come to the conclusion that it’s more an intricate wind-up toy rather than a straightforward work of fiction.

    I wondered at first, why we were being given all the details of the family’s convoluted sleeping arrangements, as they seemed to have nothing to do with the knocking, the devil, or the drunkenness of Roman Orlov. And then Algren tips the dominoes and we see the status quo unravel like a complex Rube Goldberg contraption: the loss of the accordion puts the father back in the apartment at night, he displaces the daughter, the daughter displaces Roman and Roman, unable to sleep on the cold floors, takes to sleeping during the day, which frees up his nights- and where is there to go at night but the taverns? Roman’s fate is sealed. He is now the biggest drunk on Division Street.

    The great miracle that saved a marriage, healed a haunted flat, nurtured a family and cancelled the rent, just had the one, solitary side-effect.

    I love this.

    1. I liked it, too. Poor Roman.

      For anyone wanting to learn more about the author, there is a documentary coming out in the near future:

    2. I would actually love to check that out, Joel. Thanks for the link.

  2. I love your take on this Mac...and I'm glad you got to experience Nelson Algren for the first time. Makes you want to find Simone de Beauvoir's novel "The Mandarins" and take a gander doesn't it?

    (wish I could italicize in the reply box, sorry for putting quotes around the novel title)

    1. No biggie. I don't think anyone around here is going to slap your wrist for failing to cite titles by the Chicago Manual of Style.


  3. Okay, Jami, even though I am not an avid short story reader, I will now indulge in this one because your review has intrigued me! I will let you know what I think of it later. Thanks for the inspiring review,


  4. I love this story, its the unintended consequences of what seem like a good things happening for a family and the hopelessness of a double shot.