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Nelson Algren: The Man with the Golden Arm

Algren’s best-known work owes something of its reputation to the film version of the book. This is something of a pity for several reasons. Firstly, the book stands in its own right as a first-class portrait of a colourful group of down-and-outs in Chicago’s Near Northwest Side shortly after World War II. Secondly, Algren hated the film and, in particular, he hated Frank Sinatra in the title role. Indeed, he sued but lost. Thirdly, he received no money for the film and did not appear in the credits. This article discusses the film in more detail.

The book tells the story of Frankie Majcinek, known as Frankie Machine and The Dealer. Though Frankie is the hero of this book, Algren tells the story of the poor of Chicago, particularly those who had been through the war and suffered in it. Frankie is a would-be jazz drummer (he plays in a jazz band and dreams of greater things – he was Dave Tough, he was Krupa, then he was Dave Tough again without missing a beat. ‘The kid can do it when he feels like it,’ somebody said, and everyone shook his hand to tell him he was as much in the slot with the traps as he was with a deck), a card sharp (hence the nickname The Dealer) and a morphine addict. His addiction to morphine started when he was given morphine following an injury in the war. Drug addiction is a key theme of the book – Algren uses the phrase thirty-five pound monkey on the back and one of the characters makes it clear that you can never get the monkey off your back, even if you stop taking the drug. He is not helped by the guilt he feels towards his wife, Sophie (Zosh). He had married her because she said that she was pregnant. She was not. They went out one night drinking at Owner Antek’s. Frankie had had too many A Bomb Specials (triple shots instead of doubles) and was seriously drunk. He had driven home, scraped a trolley but had crashed into the light standard of the safety island. Neither Frankie nor Sophie seemed badly hurt and Frankie knew a lawyer, Zygmunt the Prospector, who had been disbarred and now called himself a claims adjuster, who could get him off any drunk driving charge. Zygmunt, indeed, got him off the charge and he didn’t even have to pay for the damage to the light. Sophie seemed in a state of shock after the accident but, gradually, she lost the use of her legs. There seemed nothing physically wrong with her but she could not walk and was confined to a wheelchair, becoming increasingly dependent on Frankie. The blessed, cursed, wonderful-terrible God’s-own-accident that had truly married them at last. For where her love and the Church’s ritual had failed to bind, guilt had now drawn the irrevocable knot so fiercely that she felt he could never be free of her again.

The other characters that Frankie has dealings with are also well drawn. Louie Fomorowski had beaten two murder raps and is now Frankie’s drug supplier, using a man called Blind Pig to do the work for him, a man who resents those who can see and whose motto is I take all I can get. Frankie is, of course, going to give up the morphine but, of course, he does not. Only one man had done it. Louie was the one junkie in ten thousand who’d kicked it and kicked it for keeps. Frankie starts an affair with Molly Novotny. She was barely out of her teens and supported Drunkie John and herself by hustling drinks but John abused her When John is arrested, she turns to Frankie and helps him kicks his addiction but when he is arrested for shoplifting, she moves away and, after his release, he returns to the morphine. Frankie works for Zero Schwiefka a paunch draped in a candy-striped shirt and a greasy black mortician’s suit, whom we first meet bailing out Frankie when the cops have not been paid off in time. Frankie is aided by Sparrow Saltskin, a young punk who was injured in the war. I’m a little off-balanced,’ Sparrow would tip the wink in that rasping whisper you could hear for half a city block, ‘but oney on one side. Frankie has rescued him from the streets and got him a job as a steerer – someone who gets gamblers into a card game – so he is devoted to Frankie.

All of these characters are losers. Algren himself said Hey – an awful lot of these people your hearts are bleeding for are really mean and stupid. That’s just a fact. Did you know that? But he knew these mean and stupid people, had lived with them and got to know their ways. This knowledge and his writing skills enabled him to give us an authentic portrait of this underclass, all of whom are destined to have a miserable life of poverty, violence and untimely death.

Publishing history

First published 1949 by Doubleday