January 29, 2014

My Kind of Town: "The Man with the Golden Arm" by Nelson Algren

My Kind of Town: A CCLaP essay series

(Once a month throughout 2013 and '14, CCLaP critic Travis Fortney is reading a series of classic and contemporary books set in Chicago, not only to understand his new adopted hometown better, but to learn more about the origins and nature of the so-called "Chicago Way." For a longer introduction to this series, please click here, or visit here for the complete list.)

In the years between the turn of the twentieth century--when Robert Herrick's Memoirs of an American Citizen was published--and the end of the twentieth century's first half, Chicago went from a place where a young man might arrive intent on earning his fortune and live out his life with his optimism and dignity intact, to a place where the sons of those conquering heroes are mired in poverty and despair with no prospects and no way out. At the turn of the twentieth century, Chicago was a destination; in its second half it became a place you hoped to escape.

Take this quote from the last chapter of The Man With the Golden Arm, published in 1949, where Antek the Owner is giving sworn deposition regarding his friend Francis Majcinek. The question is asked: "Where was his father born?" To which Antek replies: "Poland, same as mine. Both dead a long time now."

So here we have a novel concerned with cultural inheritance, a story of a second generation hanging on under the weight of the "great, secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one." The world left for Francis Majcinek and Antek the Owner by their immigrant progenitors consists of a few gritty blocks, a card game, a couple of dirty bars, a rotating cast of colorful characters, and an alcoholic dog named Rumdum.

The Man with the Golden Arm won the National Book Award in 1950 and was adapted into a 1955 movie starring Frank Sinatra. The novel cemented Nelson Algren's status as one of the best known literary writers in America, and also set him on a career trajectory away from his early failures (his first novel failed to make much of an impact, and his second novel was misunderstood).

It's fascinating to think that a writer whose 1942 novel Never Come Morning so offended Chicago's Polish community that it was banned by the Chicago Public Library and Algren was denounced as a Nazi sympathizer, could eventually come to embody something essential about the Polish (or, more generally, the outsider, the down and outer, the hustler) experience in Chicago, so much so that in the years after Algren's death there was a movement to rename the "Polish Downtown" section of Chicago--basically the neighborhood around the Division Street Blue Line stop stretching westward toward Ukranian Village and north toward Wicker Park--in his honor. Of course there is no Algrenville in Chicago. There is, however a Nelson Algren Fountain at Ashland and Division in the heart of Polonia Chicago, and there isn't another Chicago author whose reputation has remained as consistently stratospheric as Algren's in the last couple decades. The Man with the Golden Arm is the most important novel by one of Chicago's greatest writers.

The novel's hero is the aforementioned Francis Majcinek, although most people know him as Frankie Machine, or simply Dealer. Frankie makes his living dealing cards in a game run by the hustler Schwiefka. Dealing, Frankie says, like drumming, is all in the wrist. Frankie's arm is golden because it earns him his living.

On one level, The Man with the Golden Arm is simply the story of Frankie trying to make ends meet in the rough and tumble Chicago neighborhood where he has lived his entire life. Frankie deals, drinks, steals, and whiles away the days with his best buddy, the punk Solly Saltskin, or Sparrow for short. The novel begins with Sparrow and Frankie incarcerated in the county jail, looked over by Record Head Bednar, brought in by Cousin Kvorka for no reason other than that Schwiefka is late making his payoff. Soon Frankie and Sparrow are released, but really their lives are just periods of freedom broken up by periods of incarceration. By the time the novel reaches its midway point, Frankie is jailed again, then eventually freed, then jailed, then freed, then runs from the law in the novel's climax.

But this is also a novel about addiction. Frankie was introduced to morphine in the Army, and he slowly develops a habit through the course of the novel. Watching Frankie slowly transform into a junky can be a brutal and demoralizing reading experience. He kicks the habit during a prison stretch, only to pick it up again the minute he gets out. All of this culminates in a scene where Sparrow--who Frankie's been on the outs with since Sparrow ran from the scene of a curling iron heist that he had put Frankie up to--ends up delivering drugs to the room where Frankie is staying. Sparrow doesn't know that he's delivering drugs to Frankie, and is surprised to arrive and find his old friend. The important thing about Sparrow and Frankie's relationship up to this point is that Sparrow has always looked up to the Dealer. They've been friends, but Sparrow has been riding Frankie's coattails. Frankie has the more important job, and the only reason Sparrow works the door at Schwiefka's game is because Frankie put in a good word. Similarly, Sparrow is dating a woman from Frankie's building, and he enjoys a line of credit at the Tug and Maul bar due to Frankie's vouching for him. Sparrow's whole life is a direct result of his proximity to Frankie. But when Sparrow gets to that room with the morphine, it slowly dawns on him, and the reader, that the relationship has flipped. Suddenly, the junkie Frankie Machine is looking up at Sparrow from the gutter.

Frankie's other relationships also deteriorate as his addiction grows. His relationship with his wife Sophie is pretty much ruined from the novel's outset (Sophie suffers from paralysis, and Frankie blames himself for her condition even though her symptoms are mental rather than physical), but Frankie has a real chance at love with Molly-O the down-on-her-luck whore with a heart of gold next door. As Frankie falls deeper under the morphine's spell, he loses Molly-O again and again. The novel's best moments are when Frankie and Molly-O realize that their love is doomed.

In the way of plot, there's also a crime at the novel's center, and much of the latter half of the novel involves Frankie running from the law. The truth though is that this is far from a suspense novel. It's literary with a capital 'L' and at times, despite the grime, drugs, sex, murder, general mayhem and laugh-out-loud descriptions, the novel can be a bit of a grind. This is mostly due to the truly omniscient narrator, the enormous cast of characters, and the copious use of dialect. The sometimes complicated Polish names don't help either. Toward the end of the novel, Sophie, who's reflecting on her life in an insane asylum, lists almost everyone: "Sparrow. Vi. Stash. Rumdum. Zymgumnt. Old Doc D. Piggy-O. Nifty Louie. Umbrella Man. Cousin Kvorka. Record Head. Schwiefka. Chester from Conveyor. Meter Reader from Endless Belt. Widow Wieczorek. Jailer Schwabatski and Poor Peter. Francis Majcinek. We got married in a Church."

And not only do we have to keep all of those characters straight, but our omniscient narrator gives each one--and a few others--the chance to take the wheel before the novel is out. While this can be frustrating and confusing, in the end you can't fault Algren for ambition.

Sadly, despite the huge cast of characters, the end of the novel finds no one in a better place than they were at the beginning. But Algren does offer us one faint glimmer of redemption, in the form of poor Rumdum, the alcoholic dog. When Antek and Frankie meet at the end of the novel, Antek tells him that the "broken-wind hound is off the lush [...]. He goes for milk 'n dog biscuit now 'n brings home the newspaper instead of a bottle in his teeth."

As far as happy endings are concerned, that will have to suffice.

Filed by Travis Fortney at 1:31 PM, January 29, 2014. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews | Travis Fortney |