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Book Review: The Man With the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren

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There are times when reading a groundbreaking novel, one that fathered more than its share of offspring–some good, some bad; some following gingerly, some demolishing the old ground; that you may find yourself disappointed with the patriarch. Not so with the Nelson Algren exploration of drugs, poverty, and crime in an underbelly Chicago neighborhood, The Man With the Golden Arm. There is nothing to disappoint you here. This is a novel as good as you remembered it had you read it back in the day, better than you imagine it if you haven’t yet had that pleasure. And those who have only the Frank Sinatra film as a point of reference are in for a treat as well as a surprise or two.

The Man With the Golden Arm needs to be read. The plot, the central focus of any cinematic adaptation, is arguably the least important element in Algren’s novel. It really doesn’t become the dominant element until almost half of the way through the novel. Even before the plot kicks in with a vengeance, the reader is treated to a linguistic feast that takes the language of the streets—slang and hipster jargon—and turns it into poetry, creating a style that can be best described as poetic naturalism. While it is true that some modern readers will have problems with some of the ephemeral language, it is simply a variation of the problems modern readers will have with language in Shakespeare. It is that very language that evokes the reality of that era, only one more of the reasons to read it. That language, couched as it is in metaphor and symbol, is the music of the time. Take away the language and all you’ve got is bare bones.

Add to that a rogues gallery of characters creeping and strutting their stuff and filling pages with life. It’s not only the major figures: Frankie Mechanic, the veteran returned from the war with dreams that will end up in his arm; Sparrow, his punk buddy who can be trusted not to be trusted; Zosh, Frankie’s wife stuck in a wheel chair after being injured when he was driving drunk; Molly O, the stripper Frankie runs to when everything starts closing in on him. These are characters that have become archetypes. There are also all the background figures that fill out their world. It is a cast worthy of Dickens. Some examples: Little Lester, the tough mouthy con in bowling shoes on death row; Doc D, the charlatan medic who treats Zosh; Old Man, the aged cuckold who lives down the hall with his younger wife; Meter-Reader, who keeps his job so he can coach the company team. They and more than a dozen others come on stage for a scene or two, go off and return to add the abundant life that is Chicago in the middle of the last century.

Then there are the set pieces, standalone passages often pages long where Algren indulges himself in digressive tales and discursive catalogues. Digressive and discursive perhaps, but richly rewarding nonetheless. Loosely connected narratives like the story of “The Great Sandwich Battle” and Sparrow’s three jacks fiasco at the Jewish card game add spice and variety. The march through the charging of criminals at the end of the first book and the pages of description of cell wall graffiti broaden the context of Frankie’s story. Frankie Mechanic–dealer, addict, dreamer—is a denizen of a larger community, a world where “we are all members of one another.”

It is true that some modern readers will cringe with embarrassment at Algren’s political incorrectness. Woman, Blacks, Jews, Poles—he offends them all. Language that today has been banned from polite literature fills his pages. In this respect he was a man of his time. Besides, I don’t know that there is any group that escapes some kind of insulting reference. This is the voice of the time and place. It would be a mistake to ignore it.

The new Canongate editon is a handsome quality paperback, which contains an illuminating introduction by Irvine Welsh which gives a short overview of the Algren’s life and work. He also devotes a little discussion to the Sinatra film. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut contributes an Afterword which gives some interesting insight into the Algren’s personality, and his eventual recognition from the literary establishment.

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