THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (343 pp.)Nelson AlgrenDoubleday ($3).
The kids around Chicago's tough, slummy Division Street had a game called Let Her Fly. It was easy to learn, and it was a dandy game because it made the winner feel good and the loser feel terrible. All the player had to do was wrap up some garbage, sneak up on his opponent and slam it in his face. But the play had to be fair & square. Just before the pitch the thrower had to yell, "Let her fly!"
There was no use anyone's trying to understand Frankie Majcinek, a son of
Division Street, unless he could understand a childhood geared to Let Her Fly. In The Man with the Golden Arm, Chicago Novelist Nelson Algren's compassionate understanding of Frankie and his world is the foundation of one of the finest novels so far this year. Readers with queasy stomachs may shrink from an environment in which the unbelievably sordid has become a way of life. They will also come away with some of Algren's own tender concern for his wretched, confused and hopelessly degenerate cast of characters. In that, Writer Algren scores a true novelist's triumph.
Shrapnel in the Liver. At 29, Frankie Majcinek had just one salable skill. In the dealer's slot at Schwiefka's gambling joint, he dealt cards with the impersonal fairness and nerveless accuracy of a machine. "Frankie Machine," the Division Street punks called him, or just Dealer. "That's me," he'd brag, "the kid with the golden arm . . . When I go after a wise guy I don't care who he is . . ."
But Frankie wasn't as hard as he talked.
The only one who believed him was Sparrow Saltskin, "Half Hebe 'n half crazy," a petty grifter and dog thief who adored Frankie because the Dealer was kind to him and protected him. ("Guys who think they can rough me up, they wake up wit' the cats lookin' at 'em." In an alley, he meant.) Frankie really liked Sparrow: "I'd trust him with my sister all night. Provided, of course, she wasn't carryin' more than 35 cents."
Frankie's wife Sophie spent her days in a wheelchair. She claimed she had been paralyzed in an accident when Frankie was driving drunk, but the psychiatrist at the clinic knew that she was faking. Frankie had stopped loving her and all that kept him tied to her was a sense of guilt.
Sometimes Frankie's girl friend Molly could make things bearable for him. She was a hustler who lived in the same cheap rabbit warren of a rooming house, earned her living in saloons where she got a percentage on the drinks her customers bought. But there were times when even Molly's affection failed to shore him up. Then his sense of guilt became, in his dreams, a 35-lb. monkey that he lugged around on his back. In the Army, morphine had eased the pain from a piece of shrapnel in his liver. Afterwards, Frankie took to the needle because it was easier than coping with life. When Frankie killed Louie Fomorowski, who sold him the stuff, the cops broke Sparrow down and made him squeal. They caught up with Frankie in his flophouse hideaway, broke in the door, and found the man with the golden arm dead. Frankie had hanged himself.