How the Devil Came Down Division Street Summary

Nelson Algren


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The “story” in “How the Devil Came Down Division Street” is narrated by a person who heard the tale from Roman Orlov, the “biggest drunk on Division Street.” As the story begins, several drunks in the Polonia Bar argue about who the biggest drunk is, but the discussion is decided by the appearance of Roman, who is unanimously accorded that title. Pressed for an explanation about his life and the reason for his drinking, Roman tells the narrator his story in exchange for a series of double shots of whiskey. Roman claims that he has a “great worm inside” that “gnaws and gnaws”; the whiskey helps him “drown the worm.” Roman also “obscurely” (as the narrator puts it) states that “the devil lives in a double-shot,” but not until the end of the story does the reader learn what Roman may mean. In effect, then, the story is filtered through the personality of the narrator, who treats his subject and subjects with light irony.

Roman’s story, as told to the narrator, takes him years back to his early adolescence. It seems that the Orlov family lives in a small tenement apartment that is too small for the six Orlovs and their dog. There are only two beds: Mama and eleven-year-old Teresa sleep in one of them; thirteen-year-old Roman sleeps between the squabbling younger twins to prevent them from fighting. As a result, there is no bed for Papa, who spends his nights playing his accordion for pennies and drinks in bars. When he comes in late, he sleeps under Roman’s bed, unless the dog is already sleeping there, in which case Papa sleeps under Mama’s bed. Papa never crawls, “even with daylight, to Mama O.’s bed,” because he does not feel “worthy” to sleep there. The narrator adds that Papa apparently wants to remain “true” to his accordion, which replaces Mama. At this point in the story “strange things go on in Papa O.’s head,” and Teresa is a slow learner at school, but Roman is fine.

Things change with a mysterious knocking at the Orlov apartment. Soon afterward, Mama dreams of “a young man, drunken . . . with blood down the front of his shirt and drying on his hands.” Knowing this for a sign that the “unhappy dead return to warn or comfort . . . to gain peace or to avenge,” she consults...

(The entire section is 925 words.)