How the Devil Came Down Division Street

by Nelson Algren

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 925

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 Mrs. Zolewitz, who confirms her fears by telling her about the previous tenants of the Orlov apartment. It seems that the young man who lived there was “sick in the head from drink”; more important to the conservative Mrs. Zolewitz, he lived there “with his lady without being wed.” On New Year’s Eve, he came home drunk and beat his woman until her whimperings stopped completely, and there was no sound at all until noon the next day, when the police arrived: The woman was dead and the man had hanged himself in the closet. According to Mrs. Zolewitz, the couple was buried together in “unsanctified ground.” Mrs. Zolewitz reassures the frightened Mama by telling her that the young man does not intend them any harm but searches, instead, for peace. The Orlovs’ prayers, she suggests, will bring that peace.

Meanwhile, Papa has lost, sold, or loaned his accordion, and the lost accordion and Mama’s dream coincide, leading her to believe that a change is coming. The change occurs when the prayers begin and when Papa stays home because he lacks the accordion. After Papa prays, he goes to bed with Mama “like a good husband,” and she informs the priest that she...

(This entire section contains 925 words.)

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knows now the knocking was a good omen. He declares that it is the will of God that “the Orlovs should redeem the young man by prayer and that Papa O. should have a wife instead of an accordion.”

The results of the changes are immediate and salutary: “For lack of music,” Papa becomes the best janitor on Noble Street; the priest blesses Mrs. Zolewitz for her part in the miracle; the landlord, who now has an unhaunted house, frees the Orlovs from their rental payments; the “slow” Teresa “goes to the head of the class”; even the squabbling twins make their peace. In effect, the entire Orlov family, with the notable exception of Roman, benefits from the knocking, the prayers, and the new sleeping arrangements. Because Papa is sleeping with Mama, Teresa replaces Roman between the twins. For four years Roman replaces his father under one of the two beds, and his parents’ bed has springs that squeak “half the night as likely as not.” Finally, Roman begins sleeping during the day so that he will not have to sleep at night, “and at night, as everyone knows, there is no place to go but the taverns.” The narrator notes that Roman consequently took his father’s place not only as a person without a bed but as a drinker.

At the conclusion of his tale, the narrator pauses to reflect about Roman’s story. Is it, he asks, “a drunkard’s tale or sober truth?” Complicating that answer is the passage of years since the changes: Mama now believes that the knocking young man was the devil because she believes she gave the devil a good son, Roman, “in return for a worthless husband.” This development causes the narrator to ask if the devil lives in a double shot, if he gnaws “like the worm,” or if he knocks, “with blood drying on his knuckles, in the gaslight passages of our dreams?”