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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The influence of Man with the Golden Arm

Nelson Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm (1949) influenced many writers - but the strange thing is that he mostly influenced nonfiction writers and journalists, or so it seems to me on initial reading in this long novel. Algren wrote about the most down and out, depressing, depressed characters living on the criminal fringe of the streets of Chicago, just after WWII. The two main characters are Frankie Machine, aka The Dealer, who fancies himself a sharpie at cards, dice, and pool, and his feckless sidekick, Sparrow (Solly Slotkin, or some such name), a "Hebe," who lives on the margins and makes an occasional buck as a dog-stealer. We meet these guys as they're being booked, and the cop who brings them in is called Record Head, as he remembers every petty crime and criminal. Peripheral characters include Blind Piggie, whose stench is so great they seat him on the barstool closest to the men's room, as his odor overpowers the men's room effulgence, and Frankie's wife, grumpy and nasty and wheelchair bound, and there are hints that Frankie caused her to lose her walking ability, possibly through a car accident? The writing is grim but also hilarious, with some great turns of phrase, both among the characters and from the sharp-eyed narrator. These Chicago street scenes definitely inspired writers such as Royko and Terkel (also inspired a lot of street photographers; some of their work is captured in the 50th-anniversary critical edition, though in very poor quality printing), but I don't see a lot of fiction writers picking up Algren's trail. The work closest to his in style and milieu that I can think of is Berlin Alexanderplatz, about similar underworld petty thieves and criminals is post-War (I, that is) Germany. The post-war element is significant: characters such as Frankie return from service traumatized (they didn't have the term PTSD then, but it applies) and often addicted to pain meds (e.g., morphine, in Golden Arm) and without any foothold in the workforce or the community. Not sure I'll be able to take the darkness - dark humor notwithstanding - for 350 dense pages, but giving it a go.

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