27 December 2005

The Man with the Golden Arm

I heard the title The Man with the Golden Arm long before I ever read the book or saw the movie. It’s a beautiful, evocative title, but it also makes you think of something grotesque: a man with a shiny prosthetic. When I got older, and knew the story centered on a junkie, the connotation became even more disturbing: an arm jaundiced by the hypo. I was never much into addiction stories and Nelson Algren’s book (purchased as a shiny new softcover back in the early 80s, when I was spending the greater part of my college loan money on the creation of a private library) sat on my shelf for more than 20 years.

But I’ve since moved to Chicago, where Algren is a Very Important Writer, so prejudices against drug stories have taken a backseat to getting up to speed on the literary aspects of the city I’ve come to love. (Whether this determination will extend to James T. Farrell, whom I’ve heard called one of the worst writers in the history of the English language, only time will tell.) Also, we saw the movie recently, which stars Frank Sinatra as the junkie Frankie Machine and Darren McGavin (remember The Night Stalker?) as the pusher who gets himself killed, causing trouble for everybody.

The movie is something else. It opens with Frankie, a dealer in neighborhood poker games, returning to the old neighborhood after a stint in rehab, determined to change his life. You feel you’re seeing every possible drug cliché enacted on the screen: the sleazy pusher, the addict who wants to kick but can’t, the wife who enables the addiction, girlfriend who loves him enough to help him quit, the way the whole world seems to conspire to push the addict toward relapse... What’s amazing is realizing this movie invented those clichés. It’s definitely worth seeing.

It turns out that the book is quite a good read, though the story is grittier than the one told in the movie. Algren locates the source of Frankie’s addiction in his WW2 service—he was wounded and got hooked on the morphine that eased the pain of his injury. The novel also makes clear, though, that in spite of his friends’ admiration and awe of his Purple Heart, Frankie was no hero. A grunt’s grunt, he remained three years a private.

While the novel tells the story of Frankie’s several attempts to kick the stuff, what we get out of it is the tale of a loser in a community of losers, people the American dream has left behind: small-time swindlers, dwellers in fleabag tenements, drunks, and sweet girls who can’t get a break. Amid the sad detritus of this universe, located around Chicago’s West Division Street, Frankie Machine shines like a star, with his big talk and his talent (the “golden arm” refers to his sure skill dealing cards, which he hopes to transfer to playing the drums in a big band).

Still, his life spirals downward. And although the drugs are central, you can’t help feeling that if it weren’t morphine that did Frankie in, it would have been something else. At bottom, he doesn’t believe he’s worth saving; one of the achievements of the novel is that you end up feeling they’re all worth saving, not just Frankie, but also his grimier fellows. Algren draws his characters with such vividness that he takes you beyond pity and amusement to pure empathy.

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