Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Man with the Golden Arm (1949) by Nelson Algren


Book Review
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.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Heat of the Day (1948) by Elizabeth Bowen

Book Review
The Heat of the Day (1948)
 by Elizabeth Bowen

  Elizabeth Bowen is a 1001 Books evergreen.  She's got a book from the 1920s (The Last September), which is about the plight of the Anglo-Irish landholder class during the Irish Revolution.   She made into the 1930s with To The North.  All of her books feature female characters with modern sensibilities, and Stella Rodney, the heroine of The Heat of the Day, is no exception.  The Heat of the Day is somewhere between a spy novel and a "modernist" book of relationships a la Virginia Woolf (the back jacket calls The Heat of the Day "Graham Greene meets Virginia Woolf."

  The main difference between The Heat of the Day and the nascent spy novel genre is the utter lack of action in The Heat of the Day.  Stella is in love with Robert, who is maybe a spy for the Germans.  Harrison is a counter-intelligence agent infatuated with Stella, he seeks to blackmail her by threatening Robert.   Events spool out in not entirely predictable fashion.  Bowen also includes a b-story about Stella's son from a brief first marriage which ended in divorce and the war-time death of her husband (in World War I.)  The two plots link together in a way that ultimately places the spy story in the narrative background, as a means for Stella to explore her feelings about men, sons and everything.

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