The Man with the Golden Arm (1949)
by Nelson Algren
"Junkie Lit" came of age in the 50s and 60s, with Beat Era writers like Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsburg raising their protagonists from the gutter to the stars. The Man with the Golden Arm was first, however. Algren's portrayal of Frankie "Machine" Majcinek as a World War II veteran with an unfortunate addiction to morphine is the first novel featured in the 1001 Books collection to obsessively dwell on an assortment of small time criminals and bums who would later become so popular with the Beats and beyond.
The Man with the Golden Arm contains elements of pulp fiction, but it is avowedly a literary effort that shys away from cheap exploitation of the material. Algren is deeply sympathetic to his protagonist, even as he dives deeper and deeper into an abyss of nihilism (which ends in his suicide.) By the time The Man with the Golden Arm was written, avant gardes in Europe and America had been flirting with "low life" for over a half century. Writers like George Orwell even went so far to immerse themselves in a world of poverty, but only as visitors. The Man with the Golden Arm is a full immersion in the underworld and the reader emerges shaken, fully conscious of what lies beneath.
In 2015 we've been subjected to another half century plus of literary obsession with criminal sub culture, and that takes some of the punch out of this book, but it still holds some power.