Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Review: The Man With the Golden Arm
If gritty reality set to a jazz beat is your thing, then The Man with the Golden Arm is the book for you. It's Jack Kerouac meets James Farrell. In a deserted Chicago alley. With a used hypodermic needle.
Nelson Algren won the first National Book Award in 1950 for this bleak portrayal of postwar life on Chicago's Division Street. The story centers on Frankie “Machine” Majcinek, discharged from the Army with a morphine addiction, no job, and a wife confined to a wheelchair thanks to his drunken driving. Frankie's days are spent dealing poker, fighting with his wife, shooting up, and putting the moves on his drunken neighbor, all the time fantasizing about playing drums for Gene Krupa.
Mixed in with the plot are several montage scenes where Algren moves out of the action to describe every detail of the picture. These verbal jazz improvs, including serial descriptions of the guys in the holding cell at the local precinct and the revelers at a New Year ’s Eve party at Schwiefka’s neighborhood bar, are virtuoso performances and give the novel lasting value. But the story is still as dark and depressing as it can get, even with these artistically compelling interludes, right to the bleak and inevitable ending.
If you would like your review of this book listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.
The Man With the Golden Arm is commonly considered the "first" National Book Award winner, but there was a period of time before WWII when an earlier version of the award existed, although it was not limited to American books.
I've already read two National winners for the American Version of the 2012 Battle of the Prizes, so this doesn't count for that challenge. But I read it with my ears, so it counts for the Audio-Book Challenge.