Twenty-nine-year-old Francis Majcinek, known as Frankie Machine because of his skill in dealing cards, is wounded in World War II, deployed to a hospital with shrapnel in his liver, and sent home for discharge. During his hospitalization, large doses of morphine control his pain. He becomes hooked on drugs, which he has to take regularly to function.
Frankie’s relationship to his wife, Sophie, has never been a healthy one. While dating her, he had told her that he needed his freedom. To keep him, Sophie had lied that she was pregnant. A guilt-ridden Frankie, nineteen years of age at the time, married her. The marriage deteriorated dramatically when Sophie incurred injuries in an accident caused by Frankie’s drunk driving.
Sophie is permanently disabled, suffering from paralysis that her doctors say has no physical basis. Frankie, again guilt-ridden, is trapped in a loveless relationship. Seeing no way out, he endures a life of futility, scrounging for drug money and dealing cards at Zero Schwiefka’s establishment, where, before his military service, he had gained a reputation as a top dealer.
Sparrow Saltskin, who steers gamblers to Frankie’s table, has great admiration for his deftness with cards and, during Frankie’s absence in the service, longed for his return. He did not know, when Frankie came home, that Frankie was addicted to drugs, that he had a “monkey on his back,” as members of the drug culture say.
Frankie’s drug supplier, Nifty Louie Fomorowsky, is dedicated to helping Frankie’s monkey grow. Nifty Louie uses every possible ploy to feed the monkey. He helps Frankie graduate from morphine to a broader panoply of drugs. Frankie’s frustration and the guilt that defines his relationship to his wife make him an apt candidate for a huge monkey.
Among those occupying Frankie’s world are Stash Koskoska and his wife, Violet, or Vi, a sexy woman considerably younger than her husband. Stash labors in an icehouse so he can bring Vi bread and sausages that are on sale. While Stash is working, Vi stuffs these goodies into Sparrow, with whom she is having an affair. Vi also attends to...
(The entire section is 886 words.)