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Another Reading of The Man With the Golden Arm

I just finished re-reading The Man With the Golden Arm, and it's as marvelous as ever. (This makes the fifth or sixth time I've read it, a figure surpassed in my reading history by only his Chicago: City on the Make and Knut Hamsun's Hunger.) Though I know Frankie is doomed, I still found myself hoping against hope that he and Molly would survive and make new lives for themselves.

That sort of sunny conclusion being far out of Algren's realm, I recently wrote the first few pages of a short story which imagines Frankie eluding the Chicago police and escaping with Molly to Milwaukee where he tries to piece together a new life. Which, of course, is not terribly different from the grim life he left behind in Chicago; that aspect, I hope, is one which Algren might have appreciated. I don't know whether or not I'll ever finish writing the story--there's a good chance that now that I'm longer reading the novel, its inspiration will begin to fade and I'll focus on any one of a dozen other half-finished writing projects I have sitting around gathering dust.

The edition of Golden Arm which I read is the "50th Anniversary Critical Edition" which was published by Seven Stories Press in 1999. It's a particularly fine volume, which includes contemporary reviews of the novel as well as modern-day interpretive essays and remembrances of Algren from the likes of Studs Terkel, Kurt Vonnegut (who knew him from the Iowa Writers Workshop), John Clellon Holmes and others. There are also several wonderful black and white photos of Algren in his Northwest Side milieu by his longtime friend Art Shay.

But the curious thing about this edition is the cover art. It's a design created by Saul Bass which was used as the main title sequence for the film adaption of the novel, directed by Otto Preminger. Algren was originally hired by Preminger to work on the screenplay, but the two quickly had a falling-out once Algren realized that Preminger had little interest in the novel's artistic or social vision. Algren made no attempt to hide his revulsion for Preminger or the film, which Algren dismissed as being "confused..., in the public mind, with a cheap biography of Frank Sinatra." (The Frankie Machine role was played by Sinatra, and rather poorly, even for him.)

I wonder what Algren would think to see his greatest novel get the grand anniversary edition treatment, only to see the cover invoke Preminger and his mediocre film adaptation.

May 15, 2005 in Books | Permalink