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The Man With The Golden Arm (1999)

The Man With the Golden Arm (1999)

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3.92 of 5 Votes: 2
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1583220089 (ISBN13: 9781583220085)
seven stories press

About book The Man With The Golden Arm (1999)

Down and Out in ChicagoIn the euphoria of post-World-War-II America, it was probably hard to think much about the difficulties of the American underclass. The socialist realism of the Thirties, with its clear depiction of the reality of the poor or immigrant classes, had been swept aside; now socialism and communism were being conflated by politicians preying on American fears. Even the hard Chicago reality of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle seemed to be about another time and world, not post-war America with its mainstream, middle-class aspirations and optimism.So Algren’s poetry-infused presentation of the hardships of second-generation Polish living on W. Division Street in Chicago came as a shock to many and a welcome tonic to a few. Critics selected it as the first winner of the National Book Award, and the novel offers a smorgasbord of different writing styles plus a large chorus of comic ethnic characters as background to the trials of the drug-addicted anti-hero, along with enough macho swagger and adventure to satisfy the appetites of the male critics.The novel starts with a comic, slang-infused encounter at the police station between Dealer and Sparrow, picked up on a minor offense, and Capt. “Record Head” Bednar, whom the “city had filled …with the guilt of others” (7). Immediately we’re cued in that Chicago is full of corruption: For being regular [honest] got you in about as often as being offbalanced on one side. That was the way things were because that was how things had always been. … Neither God, war, nor the ward super work any deep change on West Division Street. … The super puts in the fix for all right-thinking hustlers and the Lord, in turn, puts in the fix for the super. For the super’s God is a hustler’s God; and as wise, in his way, as the God of the priests and the businessmen. (11)It takes some effort to understand the slang and obscure Chicago references, even more to identify with the characters that start the naturalistic half of this novel written by an author who claims that “literature is made upon any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with humanity” (foreword to the novel). The reader is immediately plunged into the underworld inhabited by Francis (Frankie Machine) Majcinek, the boastful card dealer and down-and-out loser, whose litany, “It’s all my fault,” has been drilled into him by his paralyzed wife, Sophia. His sidekick is the semi-moron Solly (Sparrow) Saltskin, half Jewish (Hebe), ex-dog stealer, and even more hopeless than Frankie. Although people rarely listen to Solly, he supplies his unwanted commentary on his life: “When you’re as ugly as I am you got to keep things movin’ so’s people don’t get the time to make fun of you. That’s how you keep from feelin’ bad” (18). And the author whirls us through a panorama of West Division Street’s punks, drunks and holy unholy outcasts: Zero Schwiefka, “like a great bluebottle fly preening” (25); Louie (Nifty) Fomorowski “pushing a heavily cut grade of morphine” (27) and waiting till “a man needed a quarter of a grain a day” so that Louis knew he “just graduated Junkie—you’re hooked” (28), and the disgusting Blind Pig whose stench is so bad the only bar where he’s admitted has him sit near the toilet so the deodorant will mask the smell of this “shapeless, ageless, anonymous, discolored, mindless and eyeless sack of cold cunning and hot greed” (49). While his gums bleed into his beer, he swills it lasciviously, and its foam “left his face smudged whitely about the lips like those of a dog trying to vomit” (51). Golly, makes you want to read more about him.The laughable, sad misadventures of the minor characters as they intermittently abuse and sometimes help each other create an environment where people can’t be “straight” [honest] with others, so they turn to alcohol or drugs, which alienate them even further. Solly trundles along with Frankie, devoted to him after Frankie saved him from sleeping outside in a pile of old papers. Frankie and his wife Sophie engage in endless attacks on each other: Frankie guilty because of the car accident that paralyzed her, and Sophie willing to exploit her “paralysis” to gain control over Frankie. Frankie cheats on Sophie with Mollie, an alcoholic, semi-prostitute, with whom he can be straight, but his fantasies about their lives and love aren’t enough to break the hold of the thirty-five-pound gorilla (drugs).We know from the beginning where these characters will end up, these drop-outs from American society who avoid looking at the “twisted ruins of their own tortured, useless, lightless and lawless lives” (20). These “luckless living soon to become the luckless dead” (21). Once the city has collected 30 of them, “they became VIP’s at last” when the deputy coroner gives them “a genuine pauper’s writ” (21) and carts them off in boxes to a mass grave, except for the lucky few who get embalmed as practice for embalming students. Yes, it’s a harsh life the reader will be enduring, along with the author’s sarcasm about the system whose cracks these men have fallen through and his melancholy, pitying attachment to these failures of the American dream, for they represent the “great, secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one” (20).Interestingly, the novel originally didn’t revolve around Frankie’s drug addiction, but an editor advised adding this, which thankfully Algren did, for otherwise the novel would be a large collection of underclass, immigrant misadventures and hardships portrayed by Algren with melancholy bravado, later interspersed with poetic interludes where rampant alliteration, assonance and other blank-verse devices (reflective of the coming “beat” style of poetry) are used to create and recreate the doom and gloom of their lives. This poetic turn is especially evident when the men are incarcerated or when Sophie goes mad, as the naturalistic, comic, ethnic portraits of the first half of the novel give way to expressionistic, “beat,” world-weary despair.Algren seems to assume that everyman will identify with these losers who scorn full-time employment, such as that held by Stash Koskozka, an old Polish immigrant married to the young, over-sexed Violet; he is routinely scorned for trudging off each day to his job in the ice warehouse, but Violet married him because he actually has an income to support her own idle needs. Instead Frankie (or everyman) spends his days drinking, wandering around, bragging about his skills at card dealing (the reason he has the golden arm) and dreaming of becoming a drummer with Gene Krupa. The only real issue is that Frankie was introduced to morphine after a war injury and has never kicked the habit, personified as Sgt McGantic, the thirty-five-pound monkey Frankie carries around. As his habit grows, his ability to deal cards diminishes along with an income to support the habit; even after he agonizingly detoxifies himself, later on he mindlessly resumes “because he wants to combine all his small troubles into big ones.” This allows Algren to depict the full range of the addict’s miseries, and to set up a final scene where Sparrow is arrested for delivering drugs to Frankie.This mostly male world is composed of no responsibilities, drinking, playing cards all night and waiting for the epiphany that will give meaning to life and provide the proper woman to love. There’s nostalgia for a life “before the world went wrong” (112) and drugs entered the scene, along with the necessity to have a “heart with a twist of iron” (224), which a hustler needs to survive. Possibly this is why Hemingway thinks Algren “can hit with both hands and move around and he will kill you if you are not awfully careful” (cited on book back page). Or could it be because Algren twice uses the phrase “clean, well-lighted place,” either homage to or plagiarism from a Hemingway short story? It may also help explain Jean-Paul Sartre’s and Simone de Beauvoir’s interest in Algren, for his depiction of Chicago’s lower-class misfits, with their freedom from societal obligations, almost seems like an existentialist world, as if Camus’s stranger has landed on American shores to suffer the horrors of America’s land of dreams, where one is also condemned for “not playing the game.” (Camus’ quote about L’Etranger.)Contemporary critics talk about Algren’s talents as a writer being overlooked. Certainly for a reader who wants a Mickey Spillane-type novel, with its lone-gun hero fighting the odds in a corrupt system, Man with a Golden Arm provides more intellectual meat, along with a raucous male world that may fulfill certain male needs for vicarious adventure. Its critique of a corrupt justice system, not to mention a misguided, if not also corrupt, social system, forces the reader to see that even the most despicable and down-trodden deserves a fair shake in a country that touts its equality for all. But Algren’s heavy-handed sentimentality interferes with the real “horror” of the message, as does the comic treatment of secondary characters. The reader is periodically jerked from laughter to sympathy to disgust to thoughtful reflection, almost as if Algren himself didn’t really know how to handle his material. Indeed, the only solution posited (very faintly) to the characters’ problems is to reform yourself by getting religion (via the Lighthouse), which is what Violet does after she hooks up with Schwabatski, the landlord. He moved her into his own flat ‘n his dimwit [son] is goin’ to a school fer tardy children, somethin’ like that. . . . You should just see the four of ‘em going down Division Saturday nights, the dummy with a big new picture book all about flowers under his arm ... You wouldn’t even recognize the hound. He goes for milk ‘n dog biscuit now ‘n brings home the newspaper instead of a bottle in his teeth (314).As Solly bemoans his dog’s transformation from alcoholic to normal, it’s clear even the author doesn’t really like this solution. It’s too tame, too one-dimensional, too lacking in risk. Only the risk-takers are honored in this book, even as they slide to their self-created doom. So, if you’ve read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and would like another writer’s version of the miseries of Chicago life, this could be your choice.

Listen up, those of you who loved Hard Rain Falling. Carpenter's good, but as far as I can tell from just reading one book from each of them, Carpenter owes just about everything he's got to Algren.The Man With the Golden Arm follows Frankie Machine, morphine-addict and sometime card-dealer, on a slow path of dissolution--my favorite kind of path. It's similar to Infinite Jest in its sober and sobering study of addiction and the cycle of poverty, and I have a hard time believing Sergeant McGantic wasn't the direct inspiration for Wallace's smiley-faced Sergeant-at-Arms.Not that that's the only angle, of course. Frankie falls in with a young punk called Sparrow, they become friends, and a murder causes any number of problems between them, driving the tension of the second half of the story. This was apparently the main thrust of the whole book until someone told Algren he needed another angle, so he added in the morphine stuff later. Which is shocking; I never, ever would have guessed that. Algren weaves it in so seamlessly that it seems like it was the impetus for the book all along. And the style! It might be a little lyrical for the tastes of some, but the effortlessness of it negates any distaste I may have had for the more purple passages. And there's a great contrast between the grittiness of the dialogue and the grace of the narration. Here's a sample quote from among the more lyrical:"A roach had leaped, or fallen, from the ceiling into the water bucket, where a soggy slice of pumpernickel and a sodden hunk of sausage now circled slowly, about and about, although there was no current. Belly upward, the roach's legs plied the alien air, trying dreamily to regain a foothold; while Frankie, leaning dreamily on one elbow, knew just how that felt." A little facile, maybe; we already probably could have guessed that Frankie felt that way. But the phrasing is so good as to cancel that out and then some. Or this:"The marks of debauchery were seamed across his face like a chronic disease."Compare that with dialogue that's firmly colloquial and seems very believable as far as I can tell (this, by the way, from an old Polish cuckold, talking to his wife and her lover):"Work all day, seven days, no days off, buy nize t'ings by howz, pay grocernia, pay buczernia, pay mens I don't even know what's for, comes time to sleep everyt'ing all paid 'n nize clean howz so ever'body sleep--who comes by howz from whisky tavern? Mrs. No-good with dronk pocket-picker! Should be in bed by hoosband instead on head 'n makes funny: 'Is Christmas, now we fight all night!' Is somethin' got to happen, is all."That's way more doctored, of course, than the voices of the other, less heavily-accented characters. But regarding the frequent italics: I remember taking issue with Nicola Barker's excessive use of same in Darkmans, but this is different. Maybe that's because I believe modern-day Brits don't place tons of emphasis on individual words within a sentence, but I very much do believe that Chicagoans from the 1940's did. And Algren picks up on it, elucidating the cadences of that speech and doing a good job of bringing me right there.I really don't know what else to say about this, because again, I feel like I've lost the capacity to intelligently review a book, maybe because I don't have whole afternoons to devote to it like I used to, but overall, the quality of the prose and the timelessness and profoundness of the story have me convinced that Algren is seriously underread and underrated."

Do You like book The Man With The Golden Arm (1999)?

I honestly don't know how the book could have been better. It reminded me of Winesburg, Ohio, only updated and grittier, without all of the propriety that sherwood bogged down his stories with. instead it moves like a jimmy cagney movie, dialogue exploding and the narration, the story, moving like liquid with amazing words of wisdom and deep beauty injected every so often, but not enough to impose the writer's will, not enough to be as forceful as the hustlers and crooks in the book. the book is flatfooted and make no mistake, this is a good thing. it does not dance and it does not run, it keeps an even keel and helps the reader follow post-war chicago very carefully through humboldt park. Forget Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, all that hot air. Nelson Algren is the real deal.
—William Thomas

This book seems like a natural for me, I'm surprised I did not get to it sooner, but it never grabbed me.For one, I thought the drug use would be a major emphasis of the book. It was a larger factor in the second half, but in the first half the drug theme only made sporadic appearances. After finishing the book I found out why - the original draft of this novel didn't involve drugs at all but Algren added it later after his publisher said the book needed another dimension.I don't mind a dose of heavily colloquialized dialogue but it eventually just got tiring. At least a book like City of Night has some sordid gay sex to keep you on your toes while slogging through it.Finally, I've never been much interested in Chicago, literarily or otherwise, and that may be a part of my indifference.

my parents used to.have a copy with the famous Saul Bass crooked arm on the cover. I loved the movie. Sinatra was a good actor. The only thing I don't like is Eleanor Parker's overacting.

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