The Man With the Golden Arm, by Nelson Algren

The Man With the Golden Arm

The Man With the Golden Arm is set in postwar Chicago, in a seamy part of town populated by white ethnics, mostly Polish. Seemingly almost every business and every activity in this neighborhood involves some kind of legal or illegal vice—booze, drugs, gambling, stealing, etc. I’m sure there must be some cab drivers, schoolteachers, and grocers in this area, but they’re all off camera. No one’s taking classes, no one’s pursuing healthy beneficial hobbies, no one’s realistically working toward some better future perhaps by leaving this environment entirely.

There is one character with a real job (at an ice house), but he’s a figure of ridicule, with a wife who exploits him for his paychecks, which enable her to avoid having to work herself, and to have money to spend on her lover. So even the rare conventionally earned money is through transfer quickly transformed into ill-gotten gains.

The book is written in a realistic style, and according to those who would know (e.g., Mike Royko) is very accurate about life in this kind of area in Chicago. It reminds me a bit of Steinbeck in its interest in and sympathy for the nobodies of society, and in its depiction of them as colorful and sometimes humorous, and as worthy of being better understood psychologically and sociologically.

Steinbeck though, to me, can be a little simplistic in his characterizations and can go a little too far in depicting the poor and outcast as noble, or apt to engage in cutesy, anecdote-style behavior. I think of his writing as looking more realistic than it is.

There’s some of that here and there in this book—characters and incidents crafted to be humorously eccentric, attempts to explain away ill behavior in terms of emotional damage the perpetrator suffered in the past, etc.—that can come across as awkward intrusions of entertainment or editorializing, but on the whole I think this is more realistic than Steinbeck.

But really I don’t know that I object even to the parts that may have struck me as not fitting as well into a realistic narrative. I’ve spent a fair amount of time amongst poor people, working class people, people pursuing criminal lifestyles, people whose lives revolve around drugs and alcohol, etc., and a fair number of them are kind of crazy or eccentric and they do goofy things. Including a certain number of such oddballs and their antics isn’t necessarily a deviation from realism.

I suppose the one that especially didn’t sit well with me was the aforementioned ice house worker and how he was deceived and misused. He’s presented as a very simple-minded old fellow, possessed of various offbeat quirks and utterly lacking in the tools that would enable him to defend himself against exploitation.

I picture the author and most readers laughing at him as a hopeless loser as his situation deteriorates more and more with the wife’s lover eventually moving into their apartment, and the wife and lover even taking it to the point of purposely arranging things to increase the likelihood of his accidental death so they can collect on his insurance money. I think of it instead as very sad and cruel, not as humorous content for a series of anecdotes.

Then again, maybe I’m off-base in thinking Algren is going for a laugh with this material. He just lays out what happens, and if I were to say “Yeah, but what’s so funny about that?” he may well be able to respond “I never said it was funny.”

Anyway, the protagonist of the book is Frankie, a skilled card dealer in back room illegal card games. He has just returned from the war, where he caught some shrapnel in his liver, but overall is probably more damaged emotionally than physically. He copes with both kinds of pain through the use of morphine, which eventually gets him addicted.

He has a sort of sidekick, a wife, and a mistress. The sidekick is a mildly retarded kid who idolizes Frankie and who has enough street smarts and experience to overcome his limitations and be reasonably functional in this environment. The wife is a wholly unpleasant, nagging, drunken shrew, confined to a wheelchair after an accident where Frankie was driving. It’s implied that her injuries are more in her head and she is still physically capable of walking if she chooses to, but she uses them to the best of her ability to guilt trip and control Frankie. The author tries to make her a slightly less unsympathetic character by showing how she really doesn’t have a bad heart, but just is a very emotionally limited, childlike person who is doing all she knows how to do to survive and keep someone she loves with her. The mistress is a “heart of gold,” rare-jewel-in-a-garbage-dump-type figure who holds out at least some hope of redemption for Frankie.

Among the most gripping passages in the book are those depicting Frankie’s morphine addiction. This isn’t something I know a great deal about, so I can’t confirm the accuracy of the descriptions, but I assume they’re realistic.

You really get to feel what it’s like experiencing withdrawal from an addictive drug like that, how physically traumatic it is and how fully it dominates your consciousness. Sometimes Frankie thinks he can beat it, until he’s in the thick of it and comes to the conclusion that it’s laughable to even think of such addiction as something that can be overcome with mere will power.

The people I knew when I volunteered in prison routinely contemptuously described junkies this way, as people who were no longer in control of their lives, as people who were incapable of seeing anything but the fastest route to their next fix. You could never depend on them for anything, it was said, because whatever principles they’d previously espoused, whatever obligations they’d entered into, even the basic rationality to consider the longer term consequences of their actions, had gone out the window. They’d commit stupid crimes they couldn’t possibly get away with, they’d rat out their friends, they’d “sell their mother” if it meant getting access here and now to the drugs they need, because they were no longer capable of thinking beyond that.

It’s certainly a pitiful existence. One of the aspects of it I wasn’t fully aware of—and again I’m assuming the book is accurate in this regard—is that as hard as it is to get off of an addictive drug, you’re highly vulnerable to getting right back on it if you do. I knew withdrawal can be extremely rough, but I figured—or maybe hoped—that if somehow you do, indeed, withdraw (whether through will power or simple coercion, like if you’re incarcerated where you don’t have access to the drug), then you’re over the hump. But Frankie’s like a smoker who not only tries to stop numerous times, but on at least one occasion succeeds in getting it out of his system and seemingly no longer having that pull toward the addictive substance, and yet soon enough falls right back into it.

Come to think of it, I guess that’s a common idea in Alcoholics Anonymous and such, that just because you cease using alcohol or whatever it doesn’t make you any less of an alcoholic, and you have to be on guard against it the rest of your life, more so than just the average person in the population who hasn’t “beaten” it by withdrawing. I’m not sure why it seemed especially depressing and hopeless in this novel.

The police in the neighborhood are corrupt, but not quite as simplistically, evilly so as one might expect. Surrounded by crime, they’re selective in whom they go after and how hard. To some extent that’s so that they can skim a certain amount of money from the system without taking so much that it can’t sustain itself (killing the goose that lays the golden eggs), and to some extent it’s a matter of exercising some discretion in order to give people a break who, while in violation of the law, are mostly not bad folks.

An example of the latter would be that the police rarely try to break up the illegal card games where Frankie deals, in part because one of the cops is appreciative of the way Frankie keeps an eye on one of that cop’s relatives who is somewhat retarded or crazy, kind of making sure he doesn’t get picked on too much, doesn’t lose all his money gambling, doesn’t get into trouble, etc.

It’s as if all the ugliness of this kind of existence—the crime, the violence, the deception, the exploitation, the crooked cops, and on and on—has achieved a sort of sick stability or equilibrium. People find their niche, and they do what they have to do to make some sort of a tolerable life. Their lifestyles bear little resemblance to the written law or to what might be found in books about capitalism, democracy, religion and its morality, etc., because circumstances have required them to evolve in various ways away from such abstractions.

I don’t want to overstate the extent to which what has evolved “works.” Actually an alarming number of people in a neighborhood like this don’t survive, and many if not most of those who do have pretty miserable lives. But certainly it’s a very complex system that’s been built up over the years, and it feels like the kind of thing that’s so deeply ingrained in the people and how they interact that it would be futile to try to change it.

Certainly well-meaning outsiders who think they have the answers would likely come to grief. Improve the public schools? Provide more legitimate job opportunities? Make drug treatment programs more available? Send some of the corrupt cops and politicians to jail? Maybe that’ll help some, but it feels more like an ecological situation where you might think that by eliminating some particularly egregious pest or predator you’re doing a good thing, but it turns out everything kind of hangs together and there are unpredictable consequences to anything you do, to where the system kind of accounts for the new input and quickly re-forms itself into something that might be as bad or worse.

Maybe if you did fifty such things simultaneously you could really change things for the better, but there’s a bleakness to this neighborhood and these people that runs very deep and has an unfortunate feeling of permanence to it.

As I read the book, my view of Frankie gradually changed. I don’t know how universal this will be for other readers, but early on I had the sense that he was a strong, capable figure, well respected by his peers, that this was the story of someone with “it,” someone who stands out from a bad environment, someone who is able to manifest strength of character and overcome adversity. In part this is conveyed by introducing him in tandem with his sidekick, for whom he has a kind of fondness mixed with contempt. The contrast strongly implies which of them is the man of consequence.

But as the book goes along, I started to see Frankie as really not rising above the level of a sort of everyman in this kind of environment. The more you learn about his sidekick and some of the other characters, the less clear it is that Frankie really is stronger, is more highly regarded, is better able to rise above his surroundings, or has a greater shot at some kind of redemption than those around him. In their own way, the sidekick and many of the others have done at least as well as him at building some kind of a life, or to put it more negatively, he’s as much a loser as most of them.

The Man With the Golden Arm is a fine novel with a compelling story and characters, set in a world that is decidedly unappealing in most respects but that is worth learning about and reflecting on. It’s a good read that also has plenty of depth to it.

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