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Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm

I'm currently re-reading one of my very favorite books, The Man With the Golden Arm. What an absolutely amazing piece of writing it is. In the excerpt below, the protagonist Frankie Machine (a card dealer and morphine addict) has just gotten his latest fix from his pusher, Nifty Louie. "Monkey" refers to the phrase "monkey on your back", a euphemism for being addicted. Although Algren is widely credited for coining the phrase, in reality he merely popularized it with this novel, having picked up the phrase from the Chicago junkies he befriended.

Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm (excerpt)

   Louie was the best fixer of them all because he knew what it was to need to get well. Louie had had a big habit--he was one man who could tell you you lied if you said no junkie could kick the habit once he was hooked. For Louie was the one junkie in ten thousand who'd kicked it and kicked it for keeps.
   He'd taken the sweat cure in a little Milwaukee Avenue hotel room cutting himself down, as he put it, "from monkey to zero." From three full grains a day to one, then half of that and half of that straight down to zero, though he'd been half out of his mind with the pain two nights running and was so weak, for days after, that he could hardly tie his own shoelaces.

   Back on the street at last, he'd gotten the chuck horrors: for two full days he'd eaten candy bars, sweet rolls and strawberry malteds. It had seemed that there would be no end to his hunger for sweets.
   Louie never had the sweet-roll horrors any more. Yet sometimes himself sensed that something had twisted in his brain in those nights when he'd gotten the monkey off his back on Milwaukee Avenue.
   "Habit? Man," he liked to remember, "I had a great big habit. One time I knocked out one of my own teet' to get the gold for a fix. You call that bein' hooked or not? Hooked? Man, I wasn't hooked, I was crucified. The monkey got so big he was carryin' me. "Cause the way it starts is like this, students: you let the habit feed you first 'n one mornin' you wake up 'n you're feedin' the habit.
   "But don't tell me you can't kick it if you want to. When I hear a junkie tell me he wants to kick the habit but he just can't I know he lies even if he don't know he does. He wants to carry the monkey, he's punishin' himself for somethin' 'n don't even know it. It's what I was doin' for six years, punishin' myself for things I'd done 'n thought I'd forgot. So I told myself hwo I wasn't to blame for what I done in the first place, I was only tryin' to live like everyone else 'n doin' them things was the only way I had of livin'. Then I got forty grains 'n went up to the room 'n went from monkey to nothin' in twenny-eight days 'n that's nineteen years ago 'n the monkey's dead."
   "The monkey's never dead, Fixer," Frankie told him knowingly.
   Louie glanced at Frankie slyly. "You know that awready, Dealer? You know how he don't die? It's what they say awright, the monkey never dies. When you kick him off he just hops onto someone else's back." Behind the film of glaze that always veiled Louie's eyes Frankie saw the twisted look. "You got my monkey, Dealer? You take my nice old monkey away from me? Is that my monkey ridin' your back these days, Dealer?"

(Copyright 1949 by Nelson Algren, renewed 1976 and 2003.)

April 27, 2005 in Books | Permalink


"The Man with the Golden Arm" was my first literary bible. I discovered the book when I was sixteen, when, in exchange for permission to borrow from them, I agreed to alphabetize my aging neighbor's paperback collection. Most of the books dated from the 40's and 50's and were as brown and brittle as dead leaves. As I took them from their shelves they crumpled in my hands. Algren's book was among those whose pages I dipped into and set aside. In the end I chose him over Faulkner and Hemingway. I still love the book, though as a performance it feels much less even to me now than it did then, with the best scenes the comic ones—like with ol' husband (Stash) and his mustard-in-the-broom closet . Great to see others digging Algren.

Posted by: Peter Selgin at Aug 18, 2005 9:22:34 PM