Page references to The Man with the Golden Arm are from the 1964 Crest paperback with the Saul Bass arm design on the cover.
In the late sixties I had a filmmaker friend who lived in a broken-down place on N. Paulina in that section of Mayor Daley’s Chicago which was also Nelson Algren’s Chicago. This apartment was decidedly low-rent, with no lock on the building’s side entrance, a pie pan of water on the space heater, and heavy bars over the window that looked out on the alley. Every evening as midnight approached, my friend would head into the forbidding darkness of the neighborhood tavern on the corner and buy himself a six-pack of beer by the promising Christmas-like glow of hypnotic Budweiser lights. He could have paid half the price during the day at a store, but that would have required forethought. Not for him the beaded curtains that were popular among the psychedelic crowd. The filmmaker had painstakingly constructed ceiling to floor chains of thousands of linked beer can pop-tops. The neighborhood is the setting of much of Algren’s work, including the great stories of Neon Wilderness and his best-selling novel, The Man with the Golden Arm. My pleasure in reading Algren’s work is always mingled with thoughts of my friend and his scene.
And I did enjoy visiting there, but I am glad I was not present the morning after my friend bought some pot from the wrong guy and found himself awakened before daylight by the cops who proceeded to tear his place apart, looking for the goods their informer had told them would be there. But they found nothing. They berated my friend, calling him a lazy hippie and scornfully advising him to get a job. He was hip enough at least to know that it would only harm his position to point out to the arresting officers that he would in fact be getting ready for work at that very moment had they not called on him. They tore the stove from the wall and tipped the refrigerator in their irritated zeal, but remained unrewarded until, just before they put Plan B into operation, they came upon a few seeds folded into a paper napkin which had months earlier been placed in the back of a filing cabinet to sprout. The experiment proved a dead end for their own botanical interests, as they were instantly forgotten and had dried by the time the law encountered them, but the half dozen seeds were, in 1969, more than enough for the Chicago Police Department to make a bust.
The jig was up. He asked if he could use the toilet before being taken to the station. The lid of dope he had copped the night before was still in his the pocket of the pants he had been wearing since answering the early morning banging on the door. Knowing he was a perfectly harmless citizen, they had never searched him, even for weapons. He flushed his stuff down the drain and emerged from the bathroom to meet a pair of handcuffs.
Once he had been released on bail, he contacted a dope lawyer who knew how to deal with the local authorities. This man, after shrewdly assessing his client’s financial viability, told him just how much was necessary to put in the fix. The accused agreed to pay up and was glad he had done so when he turned up in court and found a plentiful heap of better quality pot than his budget could afford was to be exhibit A against him. He had no way to know whether the cops had borrowed it from their evidence locker or from one of their own personal stashes.
Moments before the proceedings began, his lawyer turned to him. “This morning they told me it’ll take $1500 more to make this deal work. I can’t do anything about it. Sorry.” “But,” said my hapless friend, “I gave you all I have.” “Nah – you can sign over the bond,” his counselor assured him. It was not for nothing that he had gone to law school. The victim signed and was quite properly exonerated. Another case of Chicago justice, settled to most everybody’s satisfaction, even if the man on the bottom might find himself squeezed just a bit uncomfortably. As Algren puts it in the introduction to Chicago: City on the Make: “and the old earth sighs, heigh-o, the wind and the rain, having made this scene before.” 
So I was thinking of my friend the filmmaker and his markedly funky corner of a great city when I reread The Man with the Golden Arm, charmed as always by Algren’s vision of the lower depths. Even after living there for years, my friend might have been considered “slumming”  as he had arrived from an affluent suburb by way of university. (As a matter of fact, even Algren lived as a child further out in the considerably more respectable Albany Park neighborhood after his family had moved from the South Side.) And the cast of The Man with the Golden Arm is uniformly demimondaine, lumpen or criminal. They are decidedly low-mimetic, always behaving in ways even more selfish and short-sighted than the reader. Algren has been rightly criticized for repeating the lines he likes. Quite apart from his cannibalizing Somebody in Boots for Walk on the Wild Side, he repeats formulae, phrases, and personalities from one text to another. Often the characters are flat, yet they retain their power because that very hopeless sameness is his own individual brand of the stuff of despair that characterizes his vision. In hell everyone keeps going through the same useless motions. There is no escape.
Algren’s stock has suffered since he won the National Book Award for the novel in 1950. Leslie Fiedler attacked him as the Last of the Proletarian Writers retailing vulgar leftist conventions long after their vogue had ended.  In fact, a disciple of Zhdanov would, of course, have shrunk from portraying such degraded types as petty con men, shoplifters, and junkies at all. In Algren’s book, there is never the slightest doubt that everything is rigged for the benefit of those on top, but there is also no glimmer of a way out from under for characters who offer little indeed that seems remotely redemptive. The human dilemma of absurd and helpless actors in a circular script suggests far more of Existentialism than of Marxism.
There is certainly an economic critique in his sweeping accusation “All had gone stale for these disinherited.” He locates their deficiency precisely in “the great, secret, and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the land where ownership and virtue are one.” (22) Still, the fault seems more human than class-based when Frankie Machine laments that “all you businessmen [are] cheatin’ the people so fast ‘n hard there’s nothin’ left for an honest hustler to steal.” (114) In his private musings Bednar the police captain considers himself as guilty as the criminals and strives not to feel sympathy for them. (314-5) The greed and self-deception of the down-and-out illustrate not deviance and pathology but common humanity. In the end, as Frankie muses “Everybody’s a habitual in his heart. I’m no worse’n anyone else.” (293) This commonality, however, is based on a blind self-interest in a world where “Ain’t nobody on anyone’s side no more. You’re the oney one on your side, and I’m the oney one on mine.” So bleak is the prospect that “under one moon or another, he knew not one man on the side of men.” (305) A “half-crazed” priest in a police lineup declares a contrary line, “we are all members of one another,” but no one can even make any sense of his words. (314) In a temporary fit of anxiety or insight Antek may say “I’m not cryin’ for my own trouble. . . I’m cryin’ for everybody’s,” but Frankie knows the mood will pass. “He’ll be back behind his bar Monday morning.” (171) Moral responsibility can never be fruitfully traced in this tragic world. How can an individual be guilty when “we all got caught in it, one way or another”? (342) There can be no distinctions when “everyone’s chickens would be coming home to roost soon enough.” (114)
To Algren we are all in the same spot as the “single gander” who stood gawking between its legs at a cord that forever held it fast” in front of Piechota’s Poultry (246), clueless and waiting for slaughter. Algren is eloquent with his animal images, but always with the same implication. Among others one might count Rumdum the drunken dog, the deaf-and-dumb cat (248), the cockroach overturned in the water bucket, (26) and the caged monkeys who can only cast baleful glances from the imprisonment above the bar and yearn for their lost Congo (321).  But even their lost eyes cannot compare with the fierce intimacy of the monkey on Frankie’s back.
Human life is reflected in the “lonely beat” of “the last fly of autumn” who is trapped “in hustlers’ territory with one conviction to go.” (105) By the end of the novel such insects reappear in Sophie’s madhouse vision. “The wind is blowing the flies away. God had forgotten us all.” (354) Ego washes away: “They don’t remember people around here any more.” (25)
The world is a “neon carnival” (104) in which dope or drink or the illusion of love can sustain one for a time. In desperation people strive to avoid feeling through intoxication; the New Years Eve party at Antek’s is wild and diverting (170 ff.), but only for a time could the denizens of Division Street avoid the sobering conviction that 1947 would be “a long, long year.” (175) The world is a game of cards and the best option is to get into the game and play a hand with spirit because there is no opting out, and no one winds in the end except the house. “The cards kept the everlasting darkness off, the cards lent everlasting hope. The cards meant any man in the world might win back his long-lost life, gone somewhere far away.” (130)
Every incident of human life might be entered into Sophie’s Scrapbook of Fatal Accidence. (39, 254) We are indeed in a vale of tears, and Algren invokes religious imagery repeatedly, ironic usages finally coalescing with straightforward ones. In prison Frankie attends mass regularly and identifies with Christ’s suffering showing particular devotion to the Station of the Cross depicting Christ’s falling. (224) Later on the street he sees the wind stirring a lost kite and notes that “the frail cross of the kite’s frame hung as piteously as his own heart had hung.” (263) Heroin is “God’s medicine,” (30, 90) and the police interrogation room is “the only house of true worship.” (290)
So I would say Algren’s concerns are philosophical or spiritual rather than social or psychological. His low-life characters simply find themselves in an environment where it is hard to avoid looking reality in the face. Lacking the comforts of bourgeois life, they must work harder to maintain any illusion at all. Frankie may imagine himself the next Gene Krupa and Sophie picture herself singing with an all-girl band (255), but these are last pathetic wisps of straw at which they clutch as they daily confront their own ignominy, powerlessness, and mortality. The reader is drawn to their portraits by the uncompromising power of that bleak vision. Perhaps my friend on N. Paulina and I were seeking the scent of a world where simply to survive is heroic. Even if we occupied just such a world already ineluctably, we may have needed a whiff or two of stench to make the point.
When I attended the University of Iowa in 1971 where Algren had taught in the middle sixties, I heard that he was more attentive to poker games than to the Writers Workshop, but that, for all his enthusiasm and presumed street smarts, he invariably lost. Perhaps he had to teach himself the same old lesson he never tired of teaching the rest of us losers: we’re all in the same boat and the water in the hold is only getting deeper. Though it is patently untrue that “just junkies know how everything is,” (278)  they may in fact hold fewer illusions. And the same may be true for their chroniclers.
1. p. 10.
2. Use of the word slumming to describe visiting poor neighborhoods as a recreation dates from 1884 according to the OED. The phenomenon deserves attention as one of the distinctly modern forms of ironic aesthetic appreciation along with kitsch and camp.
3. Leslie Fiedler, “The Noble Savages of Skid Row,” The Reporter. July 12, 1956. Fiedler also called Algren the “bard of the stumblebums.” Around the same time, Algren was also publicly attacked by a young Norman Podhoretz in a June 2, 1956 article for the The New Yorker entitled “The Man with the Golden Beef.” Both critics were responding to the publication of Walk on the Wild Side.
4. On the same page is a reference to the “Negro streets.” Is this the source of Ginsberg’s line in the opening of Howl?
5. In fact, according to his Paris Review interview, Frankie Machine had not originally been a junkie. Algren’s agent admired the book but said it needed a “peg.” Algren claims in the same interview that the lives of ordinary people without “big scenes” would make “an awfully good book.” However, he notes that these typical citizens might hustle a bit on the street and use just a bit of heroin “to keep from getting sick.” They don’t sound so different from the cast he used.