Friday, October 13, 2006

Pg. 69: "The Man With the Golden Arm"

There is a strong case for Nelson Algren as The Great Illinois Novelist.

So how does his The Man With the Golden Arm fare with the "page 69 test?" I could think of no one better than Pete Anderson to put the questions to. Pete is a writer, blogger, and Algren enthusiast. Here's what he reported.
Nelson Algren's The Man With the Golden Arm is set in a Polish slum on the Northwest Side of Chicago shortly after World War II and revolves around Frankie Machine, a poker dealer and combat veteran who brought home from the war a morphine addiction that he fights an increasingly losing battle against. Frankie represents the forgotten underclass of our society, a scrapper who's trying to carve out as decent a life as he can with what little he's been given by a mostly indifferent establishment. But though he represents the underclass, Frankie's not just a symbol--he's a deep, finely-drawn individual, a fascinating mixture of optimism, humor, desperation and all-too-human weaknesses.

Page 69 of the novel contains a key component of the plot and also presents a concise microcosm of many of the novel's narrative and thematic elements. This scene recounts the events of one fateful night of several years earlier, when a drunken Frankie got into the car wreck which left his wife Sophie a physical invalid. (Or at least gave her the excuse to act as a physical invalid--Algren never makes it entirely clear whether Sophie was actually crippled, or if she merely pretended to be so, knowing it would bring Frankie enough guilt to keep Frankie around.) The scene is a turning point in Frankie's life, with the ensuing guilt keeping Frankie with Sophie long after their love died while also keeping him in Chicago long after he should have fled, escaping from the law. It also keeps him away from his neighbor girlfriend Molly, who might have otherwise been his salvation as the one woman he knew who could help him kick his addiction.

The scene excerpted below also illustrates several key narrative and thematic elements: the dubious authority and wisdom of the establishment, as represented by the tipsy off-duty police officer who at first accuses an innocent Army sergeant bystander of causing Sophie's injuries; the wary street smarts of Algren's characters, as typified by Frankie trying to get the booze smell off his breath; the gawking indifference of one's urban neighbors; Algren's wry humor, and, above all, the Chicagoese argot for which Algren had such an impeccable ear.

From page 69 of The Man With the Golden Arm, by Nelson Algren:

"Yeah--but where's your license to drag this woman around at t'ree A.M.?" He had spotted Sophie at last and could tell at a glance she was a woman. "You pushed her." The law had reached its verdict. The sergeant shook his head, No, No, he hadn't pushed a soul. But the law wasn't taking any such guff. "Who give you the right to shove a woman in front of a car anyhow? You married to her? Let's see your license for that."

"This is just her boy friend," a helpful bystander offered, "that's her husband settin' on the curb holdin' his dirty head. He tried to run the soldier down for datin' his wife. Looks like an internal triangle to me. If you ask me they're all three of them no good."

"Nobody asked you."

Yet the law could see there was something to the story all right. Frankie sat on the curb with his army shoes in the gutter and his combat jacket ripped below the shoulder halfway to the overseas stripes below the elbow. Dabbing at his forehead with a handkerchief and wondering how to get the booze off his breath in a hurry.

"You kids got a stick of gum?" he whispered to two ten-year-old girls eyeing him placidly, both of them chewing like twin calves side by side. One came up with a single dirty stick, its wrapper long unpeeled, and offered it just out of Frankie's reach.

The Man With the Golden Arm is, to my mind, one of the greatest novels of the Twentieth Century, one which I can't recommend strongly enough.
Many thanks to Pete for the excellent treatment of The Man With the Golden Arm.

What's the best edition of The Man With the Golden Arm? Pete recommends:
the "50th Anniversary Critical Edition" which was published by Seven Stories Press in 1999. It's a particularly fine volume, which includes contemporary reviews of the novel as well as modern-day interpretive essays and remembrances of Algren from the likes of Studs Terkel, Kurt Vonnegut (who knew him from the Iowa Writers Workshop), John Clellon Holmes and others. There are also several wonderful black and white photos of Algren in his Northwest Side milieu by his longtime friend Art Shay.
There is another excerpt from The Man With the Golden Arm at Pete Lit here, and a choice cut from Algren's Chicago: City on the Make here.

Check out Pete Lit for more "Literary pretendings, off-the-cuff insights and the occasional rant."

Previous "page 69 tests":
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue