The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren

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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Man with the Golden Arm, Algren’s one great popular success, caught public attention because of the then-shocking drug addiction of its protagonist. For Algren, this aspect—a late addition to the novel—merely contributed to the story of the self-destructive relationship of Francis Majcinek, known as Frankie Machine because of his skill as a dealer, and his possessive, hypochondriacal wife, Sophie (or Zosh).

Like all Algren protagonists, Frankie is not as tough as he pretends; he talks big, but he is a coward who dreams of becoming a drummer. His fixer, Nifty Louis Fomorowsky, sees immediately that Frankie is among the world’s sheep, not the shearers, and that like so many, he chooses his addiction and his doom. As always in Algren’s work, when strength is used, it leads to violence and self-destruction; in an unthinking moment, Frankie kills Louie.

The wheelchair-bound Sophie is the most complicated female character in any of Algren’s novels. Her pride stung by Frankie’s indifference to her love, she had trapped him into marriage with a false pregnancy. Now, though there is nothing wrong with her legs, she insists that Frankie crippled her in a driving accident, binding him all the tighter to her through guilt. Throughout the book, she becomes more demanding and destructively compulsive, driving Frankie away while descending into insanity. Instead of abandoning her, Frankie makes halfhearted attempts to please her, because “a guy got to draw the line somewheres on how bad he can treat somebody who can’t help herself no more just account of him.” Unfortunately, Frankie does not know where to draw the line and so relies on morphine.

In another characteristic Algren touch, it does not matter that Frankie became addicted by chance in an Army hospital. He is doomed anyway, because he cannot rid himself of this “monkey on his back” (a phrase introduced into general use with this novel). For Algren there are no fresh starts, even though trust and love always hold out hope. Molly Novotny offers love to Frankie, but he cannot accept it because his tortured guilt over Sophie alienates him more and more from himself.

In the novel’s world, self-destruction is pursued in the hope of penance, and Frankie gets his one chance for redemption when he is caught shoplifting. In prison, he breaks his addiction, only to return to Division Street and find that Molly is gone, Sophie is crazy, and the one person he trusted, Sparrow “Solly” Saltskin, has betrayed his trust. When he loses his touch with cards, Frankie goes back on drugs, while the tenacious police captain Record Head Bednar uses Sparrow, as well as Frankie’s own addiction, to nail him for Louie’s killing. On the run, wounded and exhausted, Frankie hangs himself in a flophouse.

In no other novel did Algren mix serious, lyrical, and comic elements to such effect. Writing it, he still thought that books could change society because “every man was secretly against the law in his heart . . . and it was the heart that mattered.” Believing that there are no absolute moral values—only people—Algren rated compassion over justice, especially that based on property laws, and he tried in this novel to move the reader to believe that as well.

This is particularly clear in the example of the tortured police captain, Record Head Bednar, who has an answer for every pathetic excuse except when an arrested man says, “We are all members of one another.” As the one responsible for arresting criminals, Bednar finally admits, but cannot embrace, his identification with the “guilty” who are closer to redemption than he is because he denies his connection with them. Instead, he continues his spiritual con game, apportioning society’s justice when he is “more lost, more fallen and more alone than any man at all.”

Though Algren was the grandson of a convert to Judaism and the son of a Jewish mother, it is Christian imagery that predominates in this book, though...

(The entire section is 1,457 words.)