Tag Archives: nelson algren

National Book Award Winners, part 3: 1950’s The Man with the Golden Arm.

13 Aug

(In which I read all the previous national book award winners, so that you don’t have to.)

The Man with the Golden Arm won the first National Book Award in 1950. It is the story of America’s losers: drunks, junkies, prostitutes, railbirds, convicts, hustlers, hobos and the aged and infirm. The characters live in unheated studio apartments. They eat the cheapest food they can find. They eke by in a society indifferent to their suffering. They drink, shoot heroin, rip each other off. They get fat and soft, they contract diseases, they give in to every temptation because they have nothing else. It’s a hell of a novel, complex, challenging, demanding, formidable, haunting, despondent and beautiful. It made Nelson Algren famous.

The poetic epic of America's underclass.

The poetic epic of America’s underclass.

The main character is Frankie Machine, a down on his luck ex-enlisted man with a heroin habit, a wife who might or might not be paralyzed by an injury he caused, and a job dealing cards that pays just enough to keep him alive. Machine’s best friend is a penny ante conman named Sparrow, who steals dogs when he can’t work and drinks away his money as fast as can. Machine and Sparrow connive, cheat and steal. Frankie isn’t just an anti-hero. He’s pathetic, weak, bored, disaffected and at times just nasty. He’s degraded, insulted, arrested, and he just takes it all with a grim, taciturn stoicism. Sparrow is worse, so incompetent he can’t hold onto a job, steal without getting caught. But Sparrow has words, and a sense of self-irony. You root for them both, even as you know they are doomed.

It feels like a Depression-era novel. The characters are on the fringe, they have no prospects, they have no social mobility, they are trapped. It’s The Grapes of Wrath, minus the journey, the beauty of nature, the dream of a socialist utopia. You can smell the characters on the page, you can see their degradation and discomfort[1].

Algren was a hard-living dude who lived as a hobo and hustler himself during the thirties. He tramped around the southern United States for a while, supposedly living on free bananas and rotgut coffee in New Orleans for months. He saw immense poverty and suffering, and came out of the experience a life-long communist. He’s one of these writers[2] whose legend seems to have outgrown the work, which in this case is a travesty. Golden Arm isn’t some tough guy ledgermain, or faddish novel; it’s a faithful, poetic rendering of America’s underclass. In lesser hands this would be a social ills novel, with speeches, even a foreword explaining how things could be so much better. Which would ruin the novel’s power. Algren offers no solutions. There’s nothing proscriptive at all. Algren doesn’t preach. He bears witness. He also writes vivid, beautiful prose, and carries an immense amount of love for his characters. They have dreams and schemes, and Algren records their struggles with pristine insight and affection.


Algren at his typewriter.

Algren at his typewriter, smoking like a son of a bitch.

Golden Arm has a peculiar cadence, running in and out of different characters thoughts and impressions, held together in a jazzy street-slang patois. In some ways it’s the proto-Beat Generation novel—if the crime novel Burroughs and Kerouac collaborated on had been edited by Upton Sinclair—but Algren isn’t interested in autobiography, eastern religions or post-adolescent authenticity. He isn’t turning his own life into a story. He’s opening his heart, and the hearts of others, to the stories of the world. There’s a plot, but it’s secondary. The impressions, the writing, the characters—these are what you’ll remember.

The novel has some problems. It’s repetitious, and some of the little asides could have been cut. The dialogue at times feels dated. The urban naturalism, for lack of a better term, isn’t in vogue. Frankie and Sparrow’s inability to accomplish anything is frustrating, even exhausting.

But Algren is also unexpectedly funny. The best scene in the book follows a precinct captain who has to take each man’s statement as he is locked up for the night. This is his life, every night, recording statements from a motley crew combed from the city’s dregs, and the effort to stay decent is ruining him. The scene follows some two-dozen men as they try to trick the captain into letting them go, while the other men snicker and goad and watch on. It’s a stunning set-piece, hilarious and heartbreaking, some fifteen pages of it. Here’s a taste, from page 190:

So the men came on again: the ragged, crouching, slouching, buoyant, blinking, belligerent, nameless, useless supermen from nowhere. . . .

A shock-haired razorback with a bright Bull Durham string hanging over his shirt pocket’s edge: “Just throwed a rock at a wall ’n it happened to go through a window instead. So I followed through. But I didn’t have no intent of stealing.”

“You never have. But you’re in and out like a fiddler’s elbow all the same. What was the stretch in the Brushy Mountain pen for?”

“I got the wrong number was all.”

“I bet you did. The wrong house number.”

“That’s right. The people were home. I was drinking pretty heavy.”

“What do you do when you’re drinking light?”

“Minding my own business.”

“You haven’t got any business. For a quarter you’d steal the straw out of your mother’s kennel.”

And, so on. A few paragraphs later:

The captain’s eyes went down the line. The masks were managing to change, slowly and ever so slyly, to look less like plastic men and more like some plastic zoo: animals stuffed for some State Street Toyland the week before Christmas. Here was the toothless tiger and here the timid lion, here the bull that loved flowers and there some lovelorn moose.

The toothless tiger stood in a faded yellow hat from some long-faded summer, his stripes blurred by the city jungle’s dust and sprayed blood dried on the hat’s stiff brim: but still trying to look like a tiger.

Fantastic writing, eh?

Saul Bass's great ending credits to the lackluster Otto Preminger film adaptation.

Saul Bass’s great ending credits to the lackluster Otto Preminger film adaptation.

[1] There’s a character named Pig, for example, who is blind. Out of spite for the world, he refuses to perform any hygienic tasks, using his physical repugnance as a protective shield.

[2] Hemingway, Plath, Bukowski, and Burroughs, among others, belong to this group.