A Grim Foray into Desolation

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Title: The Man with the Golden Arm

Rating: 4 Stars

This is a beautifully rendered but an absolutely brutal read. It is an unblinkingly stark account of a man’s descent into addiction and suicide.

The main character is Frankie Machine. He is a card dealer extraordinaire.  He is fast, accurate, and always serves with a steady hand. He is the man with the golden arm.

He was wounded in WWII, and developed an addiction to morphine while being treated and recovering from it.  At the beginning of the novel, his addiction is fairly under control and is living what passes for a normal life.

But what a normal life it is. Although he has dreams of abandoning his card dealing job and becoming a drummer, he is trapped in his life. He’s married to Sophie, who has a blind love for him but knows that he does not return the intense love. Early in their marriage Frankie and Sophie get drunk. While drunk, Frankie drives them into a telephone pole. Sophie pretends to be paralyzed so that Frank, now wallowing in guilt at the accident, will never leave her. As she spends more time in the chair, she becomes more demanding and leaves Frankie in despair.

His best friend, Sparrow, is a low life criminal who barely survives as a dog thief and a steerer, someone who cajoles people into joining the card game.

Things look up for Frankie when he falls in love with Molly, a friend from his childhood. With their love for each other, Frankie is able to kick his habit. However, a shoplifting deal goes bad with Sparrow, leaving Frankie in the lurch. Frankie spends time in prison and loses touch with Molly upon his parole.

Out of prison, without Molly, he descends again into addiction. He accidentally kills his drug supplier. He abandons his relationship with Sparrow and his downward spiral begins for real.

He reunites temporarily with Molly, who is on a pattern of descent herself and is now a stripper. Together, they again manage to get Frankie off drugs. However, the police are closing in on Frankie for the murder. Desperate, he escapes them, and realizing there is no ultimate escape, he hangs himself.

This is not a happy story. All characters are lower class people in a desperate struggle to survive. The drunks are subject to the bar owner. The bar owner is subject to the police. The police are subject from orders from above. All characters are just surviving. No characters seek a destiny. Destiny has assigned them a slot and their only role is existing within it. It is a bleak description of the life led by those that so few of us read, write, or even think about.

This novel has echoes to me both to the past and to the future. In terms of classic naturalism, this reminds me of Zola’s Germinal. Like Germinal, it is a merciless description of the struggle and ultimate futility of living a lower class life. It makes a mockery of any thought of anyone actually successfully escaping it.

It also reminded me of some of the 1970’s films, like Taxi Driver, or Joe. Again, there is just a bleak, desolate realism here that just sucks hope away.

So, although excellently written and an important work, this was not easy to read. It took me several weeks to finish it. I would pick it up, read a few pages, get depressed, and set it down. Rinse and repeat.

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