Novel of stark lives during the '30s depression era is true to its time

Hungry Men, by Edward Anderson. New York: Penguin. 275 pp. $6.95. Acel Stecker, unemployed and on the bum, is in literal terms the main character of Edward Anderson's ``Hungry Men.'' But his presence is dwarfed in this novel by hunger. Hunger -- as a presence, a fact, an idea -- is the fuel for this grimly monochromatic book.

By monochromatic I do not mean dull. Far from it. But the depiction of poverty, hunger, dejection, futile dreaming, and overall hard times is so incessant throughout ``Hungry Men'' as to make the novel seem an endless procession of black-and-white photographs taken by the likes of Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, and other Farm Security Administration photographers.

In fact, political-ideological issues are such a constant in Anderson's novel that they threaten to undermine the characters, virtually all of whom, like Stecker, are out of work and suffering.

The men are like sharks, always moving, and conversations like the following are commonplace:

``This town isn't no good,'' Lou said. ``Listen, you guys, we can ride the T. P. outa here to Fort Worth and then catch it out there clear to El Paso. That's a run for you. . . .''

``I've made that trip,'' Acel said.

``Or we could ride the I. C. outa here up to Memphis and cut across Arkansas if we're not in a hurry. . . .''

And so they go, Acel and friends, from New York to New Orleans to Chicago because there are no jobs, or what jobs there are make migrant labor seem like office work. It is the heart of the Great Depression, after all, and ``Hungry Men,'' originally published in 1935, is a period piece of such precision that it often reads like a dramatization of fact.

Anderson shows Acel's flirtation with communism, his interest in having a girlfriend (but they cost too much; this is not the era of Dutch treat), the inevitable seeking after food (``Could I do a little work for something to eat?''), the loss of dignity, the killing of time when time dies very, very hard. The mildly ironic ending leavens all of this only slightly.

``Hungry Men'' is like Kerouac's ``On the Road'' in its kinetic aspect, but there is no exuberance, no joy here. No, this is a world of have-nots who have little faith in the American dream and are mostly bitter, hungry, and cold. The language Anderson employs to show this native huddled mass is appropriately simple, colloquial, and direct.

Anderson's book belongs on the shelf where ``The Grapes of Wrath,'' Studs Terkel's ``Hard Times,'' and ``Let Us Now Praise Famous Men'' sit. ``Hungry Men'' is a raw and potent fiction slouching toward history, and a book that feels close to the truth of its time.

James Kaufmann reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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