Algren’s Question

Algren’s Question

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-roo


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.

The lead actor in another Algren drama, the novel Never Come Morning, says at one point, in response to a sure death sentence, “Knew I’d never get t’be twenty-one anyhow.” And what takes our breath away is precisely the spectacle of someone observing his own demise, coolly and with a hearty and humorous appreciation of the irony his life embodies. And so, the pounding the reader hears in his ears throughout The Man With the Golden Arm is only partly the expiring, exhausted breathing of Frankie Machine, victim, and partly the pulsing of the attentive hearts of Sparrow, Record Head, Molly-O, Frankie himself, Algren himself, alert, listening, watching–witnesses.

Whose identity is at stake here? (Sparrow’s? Frankie’s? Algren’s? The reader’s?) And how much responsibility rightfully belongs on the witnesses’ shoulders, anyway? This more than any other may be Algren’s question, the one he had to ask of himself, and of the rest of us. It would have concerned him, as a soldier who had only a few years earlier served in a world war that was already the second of this century. And, as it would other writers of conscience, it would come to haunt him, as a writer who only a few years hence would have his passport application denied and the publication of a book of his hurriedly refused by his publisher because of his political affiliations (he was honorary co-chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Save Ethel and Julius Rosenberg Committee). He, and we, similarly, could speak of a century in which we have come to know so much and seem to be able to do comparatively little, a century in which genocide has been followed by the words “Never again,” and then more genocide, and in which the fight against totalitarianism is routinely used to justify totalitarianism. And it is in this context that the question of the witness, Algren’s question, keeps returning, demanding an answer. We all know we are bystanders of horror. Is there something about the nature of standing by and watching that Algren teaches? It is a question each of his readers will ask, and every reader will answer a little differently.

Since Algren’s novel is a work of identity, not action, the reader experiences it on several planes, only one of which is narrative, and thus only one of which is hopeless. Whatever happens, there are residues of personality, of humor, of grace, that outlast and outshine the botched beginnings and miserable ends. It is almost as if Algren’s novels were written in several literary genres simultaneously, as if at the end of The Man With the Golden Arm, the novel were superseded by a parallel work, a drama, and what resonates most strongly is an irreducible lyric quality, what Algren would have called poetry. And as if confirming this notion of multiple and parallel works within the novel, Algren in fact gives us three separate endings to the book, the first set in the hotel room where Frankie has holed up, fading in and out of consciousness and leaving the reader also without a sure grip on reality, followed by the police report, which is as it were absolutely narrative, followed by the poem with which Algren closes the book, letting go of the novelist persona, stripped naked. He calls the poem “Epitaph: The Man with the Golden Arm,” and in its last stanza he poses this question: “Yet why does the light down the dealer’s slot/Sift soft as light in a troubled dream?”

It was Algren’s friend and agent Candida Donadio who first suggested to me that Algren was sentimental. I had to think about that. I’m still thinking about it. She was asking me to see sentimentality as a positive attribute, since Candida wasn’t criticizing Algren when she said it–just describing him. We usually think of sentimentality as the distortion of a true emotion. It can also be a bridge there.

In the early sixties, about twelve or thirteen years after he’d completed the writing of The Man With the Golden Arm, Nelson himself spoke on the subject to H.E.F. Donohue, for the book Conversations with Nelson Algren:

[Sentimentality] is an indulgence in emotion. You want men and women to be good to each other and you’re very stubborn in thinking that they want to be. Sentimentality is a kind of indulgence in this hope. I’m not against sentimentality. I think you need it. I mean, I don’t think you get a true picture of people without it in writing…. It’s a kind of poetry, it’s an emotional poetry, and, to bring it back to the literary scene, I don’t think anything is true that doesn’t have it.

As the soul-grinding narrative of The Man With the Golden Arm is nearly completed toward the end of the novel, there is a scene in which Sparrow watches Frankie shoot up:

“It kills me in the heart, how you are now,” Sparrow couldn’t keep from saying. “It just ain’t like bein’ Frankie no more.” “That’s the hardest thing of all for me to be, Solly,” Frankie told him with a strange gentleness. “I’m gettin’ farther away from myself all the time. It’s why I have to have a charge so bad, so I can come back ‘n be myself a little while again. But it’s a longer way to go every time….”

As the scene continues, Frankie pelts Sparrow with questions: “You know who I am? You know who you are? You know who anybody is any more?” Sparrow says he doesn’t know. And then, abruptly, Frankie asks: “Then tell me just this–why do some cats swing like this?” Sparrow doesn’t know that either. But for a moment, as happens at key points throughout the book, the different planes of the novel speak in harmony. The scene is heavy with plot, propelled by Bednar setting Sparrow up to deliver Frankie his morphine, which allows Bednar to put the heat on Sparrow to rat on Frankie about Louie’s murder. The dramatic plane is present in Frankie’s own awareness of his dead-end position. And the poetic plane comes through in Frankie’s words. Action expresses alienation from being; being itself marks a diminishing trail; and in the end it is in their self-awareness–self-deprecating, often funny and bought at a steep price–that Algren’s characters find their unearthly power.

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