David's Reviews > The Man with the Golden Arm

The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren
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bookshelves: chicago, liminalfiction, favorites

Neon Wilderness, Algren's book of short stories, was great. So I dived really deep into the Man with the Golden Arm- I got a 50th anniversary copy of the book with reflections from Algren's friends and literary criticism of the book and I facilitated an online Facebook discussion of the book for which I reread the first part to get the story clear in my head. This book felt like an unsung classic and had a unique fatalistic spirit that I have never encountered before.

As with Neon Wilderness the Golden Arm had no heroes, there was a protagonist, Frankie, who was trapped by poverty, hustling, and his heroine addiction. There were a great variety of fascinating characters surrounding Frankie- his severely depressed wife, Sophie, who Frankie married out of guilt; a police officer, Record-Head Bednar, who feels impaled by the justice system after years of watching so many get processed in line-ups and prison; Sparrow, Frankie's accomplice, provided some comic-relief as he bumbled through all kinds of petty crimes; Molly, Frankie's mistress, tried the hardest to help Frankie clean-up; and Antek the bar owner kept a watch and an ear on the neighborhood and seemed to be like G-d of the outlaws setting the rules of the bar.

All these characters were very vivid bringing life to insightful prose about struggling in the underclass of society. The language throughout was plain and a lot of slang was used but it created such accurate and palpable scenes. After Frankie gets angry at Sophie, his wife, and breaks some dishes she decided to leave the pieces of broken dishes on the floor. "Yet her eyes took a sort of dry satisfaction at sight of the littered chards of crockery: she wouldn't pick up a single piece. Let it be like this when that henna-headed Violet Koskozka, always saying Frankie is too easy-going, come in." Sophie's passivity also exemplified how all the characters were portrayed as having very little agency over the challenges in their life.

Frankie best of all exemplified this insurmountable struggle against his circumstances- he was trapped by his heroine addiction, which he developed after returning from World War II. He wanted to get out of being a card dealer to make ends meet but there were no other opportunities available. In spite of his desires for a better life he was in constant survival mode. "There was knowledge of the long-hunted: to turn swiftly, with open claws at the very moment of disaster, upon the undefeated hunter. For the hunter there was always another day. When the hunted lost they lost for keeps." Algren focused entirely on "the hunted" throughout the book, and although no one was a hero a sympathetic view was opened up for people who are rarely considered subjects for more than a few sentences. Algren wrote an entire masterful novel with a cast of hustlers, coneroos, thieves, cripples, blind men, dealers, prisoners, and captains. He painted them all with the same sympathetic brush but did not omit the cracks, faults, or wounds.
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Reading Progress

July 15, 2015 – Shelved
July 15, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
August 24, 2015 – Started Reading
August 24, 2015 – Shelved as: chicago
August 24, 2015 – Shelved as: liminalfiction
October 18, 2015 – Finished Reading
November 2, 2015 – Shelved as: favorites

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