History: This very dark novel won the first National Book Award in 1950.
Plot: Twenty-nine-year-old Francis Majcinek, known as Frankie Machine because of his skill in dealing cards, was 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 controlled his pain. He became hooked on drugs, which he had to take regularly in order to function.
Frankie’s relationship to his wife, Sophie, was never a healthy one. While dating her, he told her that he needed his freedom. In order to keep him, Sophie lied that she was pregnant. A guilt-ridden Frankie, nineteen years of age, married her. The marriage deteriorated dramatically when Sophie incurred injuries in an accident caused by Frankie’s drunk driving.
Sophie was an invalid from that time on, suffering from paralysis that her doctors said had no physical basis. Frankie, again guilt-ridden, was trapped in a loveless relationship. Seeing no way out, he endured 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 steered gamblers to Frankie’s table, had 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.
Frankie’s supplier, Nifty Louie Fomorowsky, was dedicated to helping Frankie’s monkey grow. Nifty Louie used every possible ploy to feed the monkey. He helped Frankie graduate from morphine to a broader panoply of drugs. Frankie’s frustration and the guilt that defined his relationship to his wife made him an apt candidate for a huge monkey.
Among those occupying Frankie’s world were Stash Koskoska and his wife, Violet, a sexy woman considerably younger than her husband. Stash labored in an icehouse so he could bring Vi bread and sausages that were on sale. While Stash was working, Vi stuffed these goodies into Sparrow, with whom she was having an affair. Vi also attended to Sophie, cleaning her apartment for her and taking her on outings to double features at the motion picture theater.
Among the neighborhood bars was the Tug and Maul, a gathering place for a variety of motley characters. Across the street from the Tug and Maul was the Safari, a sleazy club with an upstairs room in which Nifty Louie gave the community junkies their fixes, regularly adjusting the dosage to make the monkey grow and keep the addicts coming, and paying, for ever-increasing hits.
Molly Novotny, approximately twenty years of age, was the nubile girlfriend of Drunkie John, a never-sober habitué of the Tug and Maul, until he dumped her. She then fell into the welcoming arms of Frankie Machine, with whom she formed a continuing relationship. It took a quarter-grain fix to feed Frankie’s monkey at this time.
The Sparrow-Stash-Violet love triangle grew increasingly complicated. Sparrow spent as much time jailed for petty crimes as he spent free. Frankie’s life took an ugly turn when he caught Louie cheating in a card game with the Umbrella Man, a Tug and Maul fixture. He exposed Louie, who retaliated by upping the price of the drugs Frankie needed to stay steady enough to deal.
The bad feelings between the two grew until, in a back alley, Frankie, badly in need of a fix, interlocked the fingers of his hands to control their shaking and, in an impassioned moment, brought them down on Louie’s neck while he was bending over to pick up Frankie’s lucky silver dollar, which Sparrow had dropped deliberately. Louie died instantly.
Frankie and Sparrow concocted an alibi that shifted suspicion from them. Others in the neighborhood fell under suspicion when they showed unexpected signs of affluence. Then Frankie and Sparrow stole some electric irons from a department store. Sparrow fled, but Frankie was caught and imprisoned for the theft.
While Frankie was incarcerated, a feisty prison doctor got him off drugs, helping him to make the long trip “from monkey to zero” as Frankie called it. When he returned to the street, however, he reverted to his old ways, even though Molly Novotny, to whom he had confessed murdering Louie, intermittently helped him to control his drug habit. He needed drugs to give him the steady hands dealers require.
Police captain Bednar was setting up a sting operation in which Sparrow would sell drugs to Frankie while hidden police officers watched. When the drugs were passed, both men were arrested. Frankie, as a user rather than a pusher, was released. Sparrow was detained.
Frankie hid out for three weeks with Molly, whom Drunkie John had been blackmailing. When John came to the apartment, an angry Frankie ordered him to leave. An equally angry John called the police, who shot Frankie’s heel as he fled to a flophouse where, cornered by the police and realizing the futility of running, he hanged himself. Molly Novotny, Antek Witwicki, and the investigating officer offered the final report on Frankie’s life and death, presented as a Witness Sheet of the State of Illinois in a question-answer format.
Review: Nelson Algren graduated from college during the depression, went to Texas, rambled around with “fruit bums,” tried to run a gas station, and spent three weeks in jail for stealing a typewriter. Later, three weeks was remembered as six months, but one day in captivity can be enough to make a dent in a person; there seems to be a jail scene in every book he wrote. He was obsessed by the paradoxical guilt of those who have nothing, in a postwar America where having mattered a great deal. The men, Frankie and Sparrow, are all action and hustle, and their thoughts are dominated by plans, constantly modified. The women—Zosh, Violet and Molly-O—are more dreamily cut off from their environment, like the limp, white curtain, a singular image of freshness, that hangs in Molly-O’s window.
Frankie Machine is "The Man with the Golden Arm." The arm is both a blessing and a curse--on the one hand, it makes him the best stud-poker dealer in Chicago and an aspiring, Gene Krupasque drummer, on the other, it is the vessel he uses to shoot heroin and, ultimately, to accidentally punch and kill his pusher. Thus, there are multiple layers of meaning and irony when Frankie says: "It's all in the wrist, 'n I got the touch."
For the most part, this inaugural winner of The National Book Award reads like an American take on Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. Like Jean Valjean, Frankie's crimes are relatively minor, his addiction for instance is a result of morphine dependency he developed after being wounded in WWII. He even has his own Inspector Javert in Captain Bednar, who has spent twenty years doing his "honest copper's duty" but is now tormented by guilt, having come to believe that the people he has pursued are no more guilty than he. But this does not stop him from pursuing Frankie through the seamy underside of Chicago, just as Javert pursued Valjean through Paris.
It is not surprising then that Algren shares Hugo's greatest weakness, that occupational hazard of the Intellectual, a romantic reverence for the poor. Algren's Chicago is an enormous prison, the iron railways that bound the city becoming figurative bars on a cell. And the poverty and squalor that the characters live in creates an oppressive atmosphere from which there is no escape. It is a world we are overly familiar with from such literature, where the junkies were just unlucky, the hookers have hearts of gold, the murders are accidents or acts of desperation and the cops who keep order realize in their secret hearts that the "bad guys" are really good guys. It never ceases to amaze me that writers like Hugo and Algren (and Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis and so on) are credited with being realistic, humanistic and compassionate.
Opening Line: “The captain never drank.”
Closing Line: “To rustle away down the last dark wall of all.”
Quotes: "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."
Rating: Good, but depressing.