It’s hard to believe that The Man with the Golden Arm was written in 1949. It seems so fresh, and contemporary, and its approach to drugs and criminality so open, that one wouldn’t believe it could be the product of buttoned-up, frightened post-war America. The collection of deadbeats and low level criminals depicted in its pages is remarkable.
The Chicago of the novel seems to sit somewhere between Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and the apocalyptic Africa of William Burroughs’ Wild Boys but the depiction of the daily lives of these characters is more realistic than either of those novels: Steinbeck’s Mack and the Boys, however impressively they are depicted, have that characteristically Steinbeckian whiff of idealism about them, while Burroughs, even when he is chronicling the more savage side of drug-taking, always runs the risk of romanticising the life. Algren does none of this. Like the characters of Carson McCullers, Algren’s are real, flesh and blood, as prone to terrible mistakes as honourable acts. Reading The Man with the Golden Arm, we believe we are in Chicago’s Polish Downtown, and we believe in the moral and social disintegration of Frankie Machine, and we believe that, despite this, the community of which he is a part will be sustained. It is an outstanding example of naturalistic writing that can lay bare the deprivations and assorted ills of a society and still leave one feeling optimistic about human nature.
The eponymous Man is Frank Majcinek, known to all as Frankie Machine, a stud-poker dealer regarded as the best in the business, hence the golden arm of the title. Addicted to morphine after being treated with it for an injury sustained in World War 2, his life begins to unravel. His fabled golden arm fails him. He falls into crime. His wife is in a wheelchair as a result of his drink-driving. He ends up in jail. His mistress leaves him. Worse ensues. This sounds like a catalogue of calamity, and it is, so how can one argue that The Man with the Golden Arm is an uplifting piece of fiction?
Well, the first thing to note is that the novel was, as one might expect, controversial in its day. Norman Podhoretz, for one, thought it glorified the underclass at the expense of decent society. Such an assertion from Podhoretz, of course, is proof positive that the novel most certainly does not do that: being attacked by Podhoretz is a clear indicator that you’re doing something right and the more he criticises the more you should feel satisfied with your efforts. And Algren, while clearly depicting the underclass of his novel in a more positive way than neocons like Podhoretz would deem healthy, nonetheless cannot be accused of naive liberalism. This can be seen most clearly in the character of Captain Bednar.
Bednar is one of the most human characters in the story. His humanism is not some starry-eyed idealism: he knows the criminals he deals with are no good and will amount to nothing. And yet he craves some form of connection with them. We are told, from his point of view, that “[i]t was patently wrong that men locked up by the law should laugh while the man who locked them there no longer felt able even to cry.” He is trapped inside his own unhappiness. “I know you,” he says to them. “You think you’re all members of one another, somethin’ like that.” And yes, their community is “something like that”, but again not in a romanticised way. Those critics of the novel, like Podhoretz, who suggest it is burdened by liberal romanticising of poverty and the poorer classes haven’t read the novel, just the cliched version of it their political views force upon it. Again from Bednar’s point of view, we are told:
For every man was secretly against the law in his heart, the captain knew; and it was the heart that mattered. There were no men innocent of intent to transgress. If they were human – look out. What was needed, he had learned long ago, was higher walls and stronger bars – there was no limit to what they were capable of.
Somewhere along the line he had learned, too, that not one was worth the saving. So he’d been right in saving none but himself. And if that had left them all to be members of one another, then it had left him to be a member of no one at all. Had, indeed, left him feeling tonight like the most fallen of anybody.
This is extraordinary stuff. The captain simultaneously condemns and pardons, disapproves and understands, wants and rejects, seeks harmony and craves isolation. His conflict is total and despairing. There are no easy answers, either for him or for us. But there are questions, so many questions. And this is why the novel is ultimately uplifting: it forces us to question preconceptions, to wonder, to empathise, to criticise. It forces us out of the comfort of our own prejudices to think about things and people and society in radically different ways.
What is truly astounding about the novel is its language. It is (before it was even invented) hiphop, rap. Above all, it is jazz, a hymn to the motion and poetry of the rhythms of life. Take this passage, told from the viewpoint of Sophie, trapped upstairs in her wheelchair, listening to the activity down below:
The smell of despair, the odor of whisky and the scent of the night’s ten thousand dancers, the perfume and the powder sprinked across the deep purple roar of barrelhouse laughter, the armpit sweat cutting the blue cigar smoke and the hoarse cries of those soon to grow hoarser with love, scents and sounds of all things soon to be spread up through a thousand rooms into her own room. Till the drinkers and the dancers, the gamblers and the hustlers and the yearning lovers came dancing and loving, came gambling and hustling in a wavering neon-colored cloud down her walls.
That writing is so good it makes you shiver.