The Man With the Golden Arm Paperback – 12 Jan 2005
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"This is a man writing and you should not read it if you cannot take a punch - Mr Algren can hit with both hands and move around and he will kill you if you are not awfully careful ... Mr Algren, boy, you are good." (Ernest Hemingway)
"Algren's skill brings his city to life; his writing carries you into his heart and his outraged compassion ensures that his story is as relevant now as ever." (The Observer)
"What Runyon did for New York with Guys and Dolls, Algren does for the 'windy city'....On its last page The Man with the Golden Arm lapses into - or should that be achieves - the condition of poetry, something Algren's writing was always close to." (The Herald)
"America's finest, yet most neglected writer...Nelson Algren's enduring love for the Windy City and its struggling immigrants fired his hauntingly brilliant prose....Thanks to Rebel Inc, The Man with the Golden Arm may now be remembered as Algren's work. It would be only a fragment of what he deserved." (Bizarre)
From the Back Cover
With a foreword by Kurt Vonnegut
Afterword by Studs Terkel
"The finest American novel published since the war."
Winner of the first ever National Book Award, Nelson Algren's masterpiece is one of the truly ground-breaking novels to come out of twentieth-century America. Subsequently made into a film starring Frank Sinatra in its central role, The Man with the Golden Arm is a book of rare genius, an unforgettably sad portrait of a community and in particular its card-dealing, doomed protagonist, Frankie Machine, as he slowly cuts his own heart into wafer-thin slices.
The literary critic Malcolm Cowley described the novel as "Algren's defence of the individual" and Kurt Vonnegut wrote of Algren being "a master storyteller...enchanted by the hopeless". Both appreciated the book's enormous compassion and humanity and Algren's immense skill in bringing a time and place vividly to life as will any contemporary reader of this quiet powerhouse of a novel.
"A classic portrayal... stylish, atmospheric and moving"
Independent on Sunday
"A true novelist's triumph."
"Algren is an artist whose sympathy is as large as Victor Hugo's, an artist who ranks, with this novel, among our
best American authors."
Chicago Sun Times
Top customer reviews
I believe it was Hemingway who said of Algren, "don't read him if you can't take a punch." This is a powerful book, definitely not for everyone. If you like it, though, give Don Carpenter a try as well (another tragically underappreciated writer),
For me that sums up Algren's passion to tell the stories he wrote about real people scrabbling to get by. He was unflinching yet humane and the muscle of his prose adds to the realism and honesty of his work. Algren's anti-heroes cannot escape their downward spiral, but retain some kind of dignity despite their defeat. I am surprised and saddened by the reviews of Algren's work that want a zippier pace and plot -- that would undermine the theme and story world by going 'Hollywood' slick. You need an attention span to read an Algren book - and that's a good thing.
The novel is set in the bars, cheap apartments, prisons, and streets frequented by the Chicago underclass in 1947- 1948. The novel's main character, who goes by the name of Frankie Machine, has acquired the nickname of the "man with the golden arm" due in part to his steadiness in dealing cards. Frankie aspires to put his steadiness of arm, wrist and hand to use by becoming a jazz drummer. Characters in this novel often are called by their roles, and Frankie is known as "Dealer". Frankie served in the Army in WW II, took a severe wound to the stomach, and became a morphine addict. Algren's novel is one of the first to explore seriously and realistically the use of drugs.
The novel is filled with low life, highly differentiated characters, including Frankie's friend Solly, a mildly-retarded petty thief who usually is called Sparrow, or "punk". Frankie is unhappily married to Sophie, called "Zosh" who is bitter and confined to a wheelchair after an accident with Frankie driving the car. Frankie has a mistress, Mollie, a stripper and bar maid; Sparrow has a mistress, Violet, whom he sees when her husband, the Old Man is asleep or in his cups. The book is replete with shady, colorful characters, including the bar owner, the keeper of the fixed card games that uses Frankie as the dealer, crooked lawyers, quack doctors, gamblers, drunks, petty criminals, and fixers.
The plot develops slowly and involves Frankie and Sparrow's relationship and the accidental killing of the fixer, Louis, which results in Frankie's attempt to evade the law. The novel is in two lengthy sections with most of the action and plot development taking place in the second section. Most of the book consists of a lengthy series of vignettes of varying lengths separated by paragraph breaks. These small sections each focus on a particular scene and a small group of individuals. They develop character and settings. Aspects of the story get foretold in each of the settings but dimly so with the overall focus of the story becoming clear only as it proceeds. The scenes are often not chronological and sometimes tend to run into each other with an almost surrealistic effect.
Much of the novel is in dialogue and full of the slang of the late 1940s. The book is replete with religious, racial, and national derogatory terms that would not meet contemporary standards The book is full of quotations from billboards, ads, and popular songs. The omniscient narrator's voice is, in contrast to the dialogue, poetic and rhythmical. With its lyricism, the novel concludes fittingly with a poem. Throughout the book, the narrator describes and comments on the characters and their actions with a mix of compassion and irony. In this passage early in the novel, the narrator comments on the American dream through Frankie's eyes.
"The great, secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one. Guilt that lay crouched behind every billboard which gave each man his commandments; for each man here had failed the billboards all down the line. No Ford in this one's future nor ever any place all his own. Had failed before the radio commercials, by the street car plugs and by the standards of every self-respecting magazine. With his own eyes he had seen the truer Americans mount the broad stone stairways to success surely and swiftly and unaided by others; he was always the one left alone, it seemed at last, without enough sense of honor to climb off a West Madison Street Keep-Our-City-Clean box and not enough ambition to raise his eyes back to the billboards."
The following passage describes a nightly gathering of suspects in a local police station.
" Yet they come on and come on, and where they come from no captain knows and where they go no captain goes: mush workers and lush workers, catamites and sodomites, bucket workers and bail jumpers, till tappers and assistant pickpockets, square johns and copper johns; lamisters and hallroom boys, ancient pious perverts and old blown parolees, rapoes and record-men; the damned and the undaunted, the jaunty and condemned."
The novel starts slowly and with some rough edges gathers in force and conviction. The reader gradually gets drawn into the settings and develops a feeling for the characters and their struggles and failings without romanticizing them. "We are all members of one another" is a theme driven home in the work through all the stories of isolation, frustration and loneliness. "The Man With The Golden Arm" is slow and difficult; but it is an American masterwork. I am grateful to the documentary I saw for getting me to read this novel at last.
The first 100 pages are a mess requiring iron will to persevere- where was the editing? The dialogue is extremely difficult for a UK reader. Phonetic spelling is everywhere (fee-an-sey). Proper Nouns & personal names proliferate eg)Steerer, Blind Pig, Meter Reader,Record Head, one character has at least four interchangeable names such that you are half way through the book before easy recognition kicks in. The best name, apart from Frankie Machine himself, has got to be Rumdum the alcoholic hound.
The UK reader (and possibly US reader) will also need a whole new vocabulary eg)unkjay,coneroo,sandlot,aggies,lamisters,boog honky-tonk. There are many more and the problem is that it slows reading to a crawl or convert to scan read.
For such a dark novel it does contain some lovely comedy one-liners but it is so easy to miss them in a blizzard of metaphors. There is a good novel in there (a much shorter novel) but my feelings can be summed up with this quote;
'Go back to the beginning',Sparrow requested politely,'I lost tract in the middle'. But DeWitt was too busy hauling that little red wagon of piled-up woes to heed anyone'.
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