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The Man with the Golden Arm ()

National Book Award Winners (1950)

    This is a man writing and you should not read it if you cannot take a punch... Mr Algren can hit
    with both hands and move around and he will kill you if you are not awfully careful ... Mr Algren,
    boy, you are good.
        -Ernest Hemingway

Frankie Machine is "The Man with the Golden Arm."  The arm is both a blessing and a curse--on the one hand, it makes him the best stud-poker dealer in Chicago and an aspiring, Gene Krupasque drummer, on the other, it is the vessel he uses to shoot heroin and, ultimately, to accidentally punch and kill his pusher.  Thus, there are multiple layers of meaning and irony when Frankie says: "It's all in the wrist, 'n I got the touch."

For the most part, this inaugural winner of The National Book Award reads like an American take on Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.  Like Jean Valjean, Frankie's crimes are relatively minor, his addiction for instance is a result of morphine dependency he developed after being wounded in WWII.  He even has his own Inspector Javert in Captain Bednar, who has spent twenty years doing his "honest copper's duty" but is now tormented by guilt, having come to believe that the people he has pursued are no more guilty than he.  But this does not stop him from pursuing Frankie through the seamy underside of Chicago, just as Javert pursued Valjean through Paris.

It is not surprising then that Algren shares Hugo's greatest weakness, that occupational hazard of the Intellectual, a romantic reverence for the poor.  Algren's Chicago is an enormous prison, the iron railways that bound the city becoming figurative bars on a cell.  And the poverty and squalor that the characters live in creates an oppressive atmosphere from which there is no escape.  It is a world we are overly familiar with from such literature, where the junkies were just unlucky, the hookers have hearts of gold, the murders are accidents or acts of desperation and the cops who keep order realize in their secret hearts that the "bad guys" are really good guys.  It never ceases to amaze me that writers like Hugo and Algren (and Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis and so on) are credited with being realistic, humanistic and compassionate.  As I've asked before, how do most of us have any idea if their portraits of the poor are realistic?  (see Orrin's review of Dog Eat Dog (1996)(Edward Bunker(Grade: B)).  How many critics and academics know any inner city heroin addicts?  Why should we believe, as Algren asks us to, that the average junkie is an unwilling victim of life's circumstances?  Perhaps the most unrealistic passages in the book are those where the policeman Bednar sits wringing his hands in anguish at the injustice he perpetrates on criminals.  I'll defer to my sister, who is a prosecutor, and her husband, who is a cop, but I've known a fair number of law enforcement officials and none of them resembled Bednar.  Your middle class guilt tends to get sucked out of you pretty quickly once it comes in contact with a few lowlifes.

But never mind for now whether Algren's vision of the urban poor is realistic; let's ask instead what his view says about humankind.  Fundamentally, he espouses a world view wherein the poor are just like you and me only they got a few bad breaks and now they are unable to help themselves because of external forces.  How can this be the humanist position?  In some basic sense, Algren and his ilk do not believe in Man, in his potential, in his power, in his ambition.  Instead, they believe in impersonal forces which govern Man  and in Man's essential helplessness in the face of circumstance.  This strikes me as anti-human.

As to compassion, one would have thought the day was long since past when anyone believed that it is compassionate to excuse the pathologies of the underclass and to try to make them dependents of charitable largesse.  But check out this passage from Russell Banks's intro to a reissue of Algren's novels:

    It shouldn't surprise me that Nelson Algren, clearly one of the best novelists of his time, is not
    much read these days. It's the ''kill the messenger'' syndrome, I suppose, for the news that Algren's
    works brings us is not good news: if the world he describes is at all like our own, then it's not
    morning in America, and it hasn't been for a long, long time. In an Algren novel or story, the only
    thing that trickles down to where most folks live is disdain, violence and sometimes, on a good day,
    benign neglect; racism, greed, sadism and misogyny are the warp and woof of our social fabric; the
    workers are not happy and a lot of them are pregnant teen-agers, have no homes, no food, no jobs
    and no prospects for same.

The most important notion here, though Banks would not recognize it, is that the world Algren describes is not at all like our own.  We don't sit around blaming other people for our problems and hoping to get hot in a card game.  In "our world" people go out every day and work hard and accept responsibility for their own actions and they make their own good fortune.  If we are all lucky, one day we will look back on the Welfare Reform Act and see it as a seminal moment in our history.  It will come to be seen as the moment when the ideology of Nelson Algren's literature was finally put to rest and we, as a society, began to demand once again that people help themselves, instead of blaming the world for their problems.

The Man with the Golden Arm is a perfectly acceptable example of it's genre, which combines romanticized visions of the poor with Left Wing polemic, perhaps better than most.  But at the end of the day, it's hard to avoid the inclination to say, "Frankie should have stopped doing drugs and gotten a real job and none of this would have happened."


Grade: (C)


Nelson Algren Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Nelson Algren
    -ESSAY: Nelson Algren's secret: The true story behind "City on the Make": Algren adapted some of his most important descriptions of Chicago from a New Yorker's description of New York (Jeff McMahon, Newcity Chicago)
    -ESSAY: Burroughs Makes Inroads, But What About Algren? (Jan Herman, 4/28/2015, Straight Up)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Nelson Algren (1909-1981) - original name Nelson Ahlgren Abraham (kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "nelson algren"
    -NELSON ALGREN (The Biography Project, Pop Subculture)
    -Walk on the Wildside (BBC)
    -ESSAY: NELSON ALGREN: THE MESSAGE STILL HURTS (Russell Banks, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Chicago Guy: Nelson Algren (John Sayles, Conjunctions)
    -ESSAY: From the Vagrant to the Fugitive: Institutional Models in Nelson Algren's Somebody in Boots. (Robert Ward, School of English, University of Leeds)
    -ESSAYS: Bruce A. Toor; Bettina Drew; Art Shay; Studs Terkel: Nelson Algren: An Exchange (NY Review of Books)
    -PHOTO: Art Shay photographs of old Maxwell Street (1950s).  Nelson Algren and Marcel Marceau on Maxwell Street, at the Saxophone kazoo stand
    -DISCUSSION: Nelson Algren:   FAVORITE AUTHORS Discussion Deck (Jolly Roger)
    -REVIEW: of The Man with the Golden Arm  By Nelson Algren (Eric Dean Rasmussen, Authors Review of Books,
    -REVIEW: of The Man with the Golden Arm (Twisted Web)
    -REVIEW: Thomas R. Edwards: Underground Man, NY Review of Books
       Never Come Morning by Nelson Algren
       The Neon Wilderness by Nelson Algren
       The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren and introduction by James R. Giles
       A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren and foreword by Russell Banks
       Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side by Bettina Drew
       Confronting the Horror: The Novels of Nelson Algren by James R. Giles
       Nelson Algren's Chicago photographs by Art Shay
    -REVIEW: of THE DEVIL'S STOCKING by Nelson Algren (John W. Aldridge, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A TRANSATLANTIC LOVE AFFAIR Letters to Nelson Algren. By Simone de Beauvoir (Mim Udovitch, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Nelson Algren A Life on the Wild Side By Bettina Drew (HERBERT MITGANG, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of NELSON ALGREN A Life on the Wild Side. By Bettina Drew (James Atlas, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side By Bettina Drew (Scott Rettberg, Authors Review of Books,

    -BUY IT: VHS (Amazon)
    -INFO: Man with the Golden Arm, The (1955) (Internet Movie Database)


Any sensitive reading of "Golden Arm" would reveal that Bednar's hand-wringing is more poetic then realistic. There are many other such passages that suspend realism as such (realism in fiction is NOT documentary) and infuse the story with a lyrical quality, providing accentuation and relief that can illuminate more that hard fact. Furthermore, it's Algren's very restraint of romanticism which lends the power and longevity to this work. There is no glory in these characters except for their basic humanity (Bednar included) and Algren is rightly recognized in his compassion for them.

Early on in your review, your book review becomes a polemic of it's own, lambasting political and social policy of the "great society" rather than dealing with the book on its own merits and throwing in a plug for welfare reform for good measure. Excuse me, but literary criticism this ain't. You may not agree with Algren's or Hugo's politics; you may fail to share a similar compassion for people who really have been dealt cruel blows in their life. But it should be obvious to you through Algen's command of the language and unblinking observations that the existential axiom remains: people are not what they should be -- they are what they are. The good guys aren't bad guys, nor vice versa -- they just ARE. That is the essence of realism.

To their credit, some people can rise above alcholic, criminal or abusive households to become the pillars of society that you seem to require of them, and some people don't and remain "lowlifes". Some of them become cops, prosecuting attorneys (who, I would argue, are cynical and well-jaded before any first-hand exposure to criminal elements). And some even become judges, politicians and televangilists. But, regardless of their status, as long as they show up to some crappy job every day and ON TIME, they've fufilled what you would characterize as the manifestation of your belief "in Man, in his potential, in his power, in his ambition." If cleverly wheedling confessions out of the "pathologies of the underclass" is your idea of fufilling some human ideal as opposed to just another dirty job, perhaps you should reconsider your own avocation and, by your own standards, aim a little higher. Mike Lee p.s. Algen's "Nonconformity" is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it. I'd love to see your take.

- Mike Lee

- Apr-11-2003, 17:36