“It’s All in the Wrist”

Author Nelson Algren (1909-1981)

The following poem is how novelist Nelson Algren ends his best-known novel, The Man with the Golden Arm (1949). It is a tale of lowlifes, mostly of Polish ancestry, trying to eke out a living in postwar Chicago with no money and a hankering for drink, drugs, and gambling. It is perhaps the most compassionate novel ever written about the lower strata of American urban society. Its hero is Frankie Machine, a war vet who is a card dealer in a gambling club who has an unfortunate addiction to morphine.

Epitaph: The Man with the Golden Arm

It’s all in the wrist, with a deck or a cue,
And Frankie Machine had the touch.
He had the touch—and a golden arm—
“Hold up, Arm,” he would plead,
Kissing his rosary once for help
With the faders sweating it out and—
Zing!—there it was—Little Joe or Eighter from Decatur,
Double trey the hard way, dice be nice,
When you get a hunch bet a bunch,
It don’t mean a thing if it don’t cross that string,
Make me five to keep me alive,
Tell ’em where you got it ’n how easy it was—
We remember Frankie Machine
And the arm that always held up.

We remember in the morning light
When the cards are boxed and the long cues racked
Straight up and down like the all-night hours
With the hot rush hours past.

For it’s all in the wrist with a deck or a cue
And if he crapped out when we thought he was due
It must have been that the dice were rolled,
For he had the touch, and his arm was gold;
Rack up his cue, leave the steerer his hat,
The arm that held up has failed at last.

Yet why does the light down the dealer’s slot
Sift soft as light in a troubled dream?
(A dream, they say, of a golden arm
That belonged to the dealer we called Machine.)

A steerer is a person hired to lure customers into a gambling den.

The Philosophers

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Just as the Second World War was ending, there was a philosophical renaissance of sorts that was born in the streets and cafés of Paris. Most associated with it are Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir. Best known for her book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir had written a novel about the French existentialists in 1954 called The Mandarins.

It is a classical roman à clef, in which real people appear under fictional names:

  • Jean-Paul Sartre becomes Robert Dubreuilh
  • Simone de Beauvoir becomes Anne Dubreuilh, Robert’s wife (In real life, Sartre and de Beauvoir were an unmarried couple for over fifty years)
  • Albert Camus becomes Henri Perron
  • American novelist Nelson Algren becomes Lewis Brogan

The book’s characters are deeply involved in leftist political issues without subjecting themselves to control by the Russian Politburo. Yet they find that it was easier to blow up trains and otherwise sabotage the Nazi war machine than to find a path through the messy politics of the Fourth Republic in France, particularly during the postwar political rise of Charles De Gaulle.

The Camus/Perron character struck home with me, because he is the most disaffected of the group after the war ends. As he gets pushed more and more by his friends into the messy politics of the French Republic, he becomes increasingly dispirited. This reflects his relationships with his women and his male friends.

Curiously, although Simone de Beauvoir never married and never had children, she is both married and with a troublesome daughter (Nadine) in The Mandarins. Her relationship with Sartre/Debreuilh is an open marriage, and she carries on a long affair with an American novelist, Nelson Algren/Lewis Brogan, the author of The Man with the Golden Arm.

The Mandarins is one of the best books I have read all year. I rather suspect that I will revisit the French existentialists in my reading during the months to come. Also, I have concluded that de Beauvoir is a badly underrated author considering her importance in a major twentieth century philosophical movement.