This essay is taken from the fiftieth-anniversary edition of The Man With the Golden Arm, complete with commentary, from Seven Stories Press.
He would hang his coat neatly over the back of his chair in the leaden station-house twilight, say he was beat from lack of sleep and lay his head across his arms upon the query-room desk.
--The Man With the Golden Arm
I am looking at a photograph of Nelson Algren on the evening he received the very first National Book Award. It adorns the most prominent wall in the Seven Stories Press offices, where, were we another kind of business, we would have our diplomas, our first dollar bill or our celebrity photo. Algren was the first author I published, beginning a year or two after he died, and the photo, a recent find in the archives of the National Book Foundation, shows me a happier vision of this person than the one I have grown accustomed to over the past fifteen years. Nelson stands beside Eleanor Roosevelt, who presented him with the award. It is March 1950. He is biting down on a cigar and grinning to himself like a hard-boiled Mona Lisa, unmistakably a man who has taken on the world and won, and, even more surprising, a man who had expected to win all along.
Taking on the world, for Algren, meant changing it through the proper use of his literary voice. His heroes were the Russian writers he admired, who could take for granted what on American soil can seem like a grandiose notion: that literary and social aims fit together. Algren was, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, a novelist with the heart of a radical reformer (precisely the kind of writer HUAC deemed "un-American"), and like his contemporary, the playwright Arthur Miller, he is representative of what many still consider to be the best American literary tradition of the postwar period. When his goal of revolutionary change through literary means seemed impossible, his life depressed him, even made him suicidal on at least one occasion; when the goal seemed within reach, as on this cool night in March 1950, he became elated and all was right with him.
Since Algren fought losing battles on a regular basis, winning, for Algren, held a special glory. But no surprise. And since he had chosen to write about a world of extreme dysfunction and despair, his strategy for making it habitable and enjoyable for his readers had to be complex and even a bit farfetched. In order to mine this world for gemstones of joy and hope, Algren had to be both in his particular historical moment and outside it, and given the sensitive and difficult subject matter he had chosen, he had to approach his readers gingerly, not pointing a finger but asking questions, hopefully questions that could be a bridge from his time into the future.
He had won the award for his astonishing novel The Man With the Golden Arm, completed and published the prior year, 1949. And the mysterious moment captured in the photo is best understood in terms of this specific work. Not because it is his only monumental achievement. It isn't. The earlier novel Never Come Morning (which actually sold more copies), his gracious story collection The Neon Wilderness (still the favorite among his works of many fellow writers), the book-length prose poem Chicago: City on the Make--each of these is of comparable stature and strength. But it is his Golden Arm, nonetheless, that is his greatest triumph, his greatest victory, his winningest hand--because its language is so densely laid down and so lyrical, its momentum so sustained, because the familiar Algren characters here are possessed of so much insight. To say it the way I imagine Algren might have: because it is the book he put the most into. Or as Nelson actually described his feelings about the novel, in a letter written a few years after he completed it [see page 32], "so I feel it was a lucky book, and a lucky time now past, and I was lucky to write it."
The story line of The Man With the Golden Arm is simple, but hidden. It is not the story of a man falling prey to drug addiction, since that happens offstage and prior to the novel's start. Nor is it an account of a marriage breaking up, since that also happens in the wings, before the novel's opening. Nor is it the account of a murder, unless in a most unusual sense, since the murder plays only a small part of the monumental drama that is played out in these pages. The Man With the Golden Arm is, plainly and simply, an account of a junkie trying to go straight or, in more universal terms, a man pulling his life together--and failing miserably at it. Hooked on morphine at the end of the war, Frankie kills his dealer in a fit of pride and disgust. Saddled with a miserable marriage, he begins seeing a girl, an old acquaintance with a heart of gold, and can foresee a time when he has put his marital troubles behind him. Jailed on a minor theft, he heroically "buries his monkey," kicks his habit cold turkey, because jail is the one place he can get that job done. Frankie Majcinek is only trying to improve his life. But Algren's world is an essentially upside-down, tragic place. Good things happen too late to matter, or not at all. In the end, it's all the same difference. After paying so steep a price to get clean, Frankie goes back on morphine anyway. So what keeps us, Algren's readers, trudging along with hope in our hearts?
Algren embraced contradictions: He wrote unromantically, yet sentimentally; he wrote hopefully about characters with no way out; he wrote about a drab and almost colorless world in a splendidly rich, densely poetic and colorful prose style. He turned Aristotle on his head as well, writing about "low" comedic characters as if their stories were high tragedy--and to Algren they were, because what happened to them mattered so very much to him. That he came along when he did, at a time of suffocating conformity, only adds to the magic of what he accomplished. But where lies the pull of Algren's novels? And--a related question--could it be a matter of importance both in his historical period and in ours?
The Man With the Golden Arm is a book about identity, not action. The engine that powers the narrative forward is not the impact of the doer but the drama of the witness--of Sparrow, who sees the murder and helps drag the body out of plain view to buy Frankie time; of the many other neighborhood denizens, who rightly assume they know who done it, and approve; of Record Head Bednar, who interrogates the endless parade of the accused and condemned, only to feel that he alone, he who has done nothing wrong, is the real guilty party. Action here always has a dreamlike, otherworldly quality. People's jobs--Steerer, Record Head, Fixer, Meter Reader--are usually running gags of irrelevance, and even Frankie's--Dealer--becomes one by the end. Algren's characters here watch themselves with the distance and objectivity of nonpartisan witnesses. They reveal what they are made of not through their actions but by how they bear witness.