The Man with the Golden Arm (novel)

The Man with the Golden Arm (novel)

"The Man with the Golden Arm" is a novel by Nelson Algren that recounts the life of "Frankie Machine", a card-dealer in an illicit poker game being run not far from the tenement in which he lives. Machine is a morphine junkie just back to Chicago's Near Northwest Side after detoxing in the federal prison for narcotics addicts in Louisville, Kentucky, being exposed again to all the pressures, anxieties and temptations that put him there in the first place.

Published by Doubleday in November 1949, this very dark novel won the first National Book Award in 1950. One of the seminal novels of post-World War II American letters, "The Man with the Golden Arm" is widely considered Algren's greatest and most enduring work.

Plot Summary

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, that he had a “monkey on his back,” as members of the drug culture would say.

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. The book’s epitaph is the poem “The Man with the Golden Arm.”

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

In 1955, the book was made into a film directed by Otto Preminger and starring Frank Sinatra.

In Popular Culture

Leonard Cohen's " The Stranger Song" mentions a man who possesses similar traits to Frankie Machine. "You've seen that man before, his golden arm dispatching cards, but now it's rusted from the elbow to the finger."

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