“The great pleasure of the book was that it came so easily. All I had to do was be there with buckets to catch it. That’s why the form is loose.”
–- Saul Bellow
A novel by Saul Bellow published in 1953. It is the story of young Augie growing up in Chicago during the Depression. Augie is a misfit- much like most of Bellow’s protagonists- and he is unwilling to accept the rules imposed by the society surrounding him. Augie spends much if his youth searching for a life which contents him on his own terms, but his major obstacle is the fact that his ambition is, well, too broad. He has no idea where too begin and therefore falls into a multitude of odd lifestyles.
Augie eventually runs off to Mexico and there he takes on a number of different jobs and finds himself entangled in several unusual relationships. Jobs he takes on include being a dog groomer, a soap salesman, a shoplifter and a boxing coach. He grows close to several people who work as mentors of a sort in his life, though while each of these people attempt to help Augie to figure out his place in this world, he continually moves on to his next set of adventures. Augie’s eventual affair with a woman becomes his final epiphany: It is virtually impossible to achieve both love and independence.
Some major themes presented: Power will forever be in constant flux. Love cannot be trusted. Desire is inescapable. Know your skills in life and utilize them as much as possible.
Augie is very much a Bellow character, but he is different in that he is more playful, far more idealistic and more adventurous than other Bellow protagonists. Augie takes risks and offers a charming example of life with freedom; a positive American spirit.
My review: I give it a C+.
I must say I enjoyed "Henderson the Rain King" much much more. For some reason I did not connect with Augie very well, and found his development as well as the character development of his family and friends overwritten and at times quite dull. The novel is a approximately 600 pages, but I think the beauty of his story could have been honed down to almost half that length.
The attempt to show the subtle delicacy of family relationships is a lofty one but to me the book failed to offer a solid rendering. The reader is introduced to numerous people- his brother Simon and Granda Lausch are two primary ones for instance- but the story gets lost in their detailed portraits along with other more minor characters.
Having said this, there are also some passages which are trademark Bellow- phrases and/or paragraphs I found remarkably stunning- and this made the novel worth completing. From a simple remark like “her skirt as straight as a line of Euclid,” to a smattering of mythic allusions, Bellow’s command of language in his storytelling is striking and deceptively smooth in its flow.
Here are a few lovely paragraphs:
“Before vice and shortcoming, admitted in the weariness of maturity, common enough and boring to make an extended showing of, there are, or are supposed to be, silken, unconscious, nature-painted times, like the pastoral Sicilian shepherd lovers, or lions you can chase away with stones and golden snakes who scatter from their knots into the fissures of Eryx. Early scenes of life, I mean; for each separate person too, everyone beginning with Eden and passing through trammels, pains, distortions, and death into the darkness out of which, it is hinted, we may hope to enter permanently into the beginning again.”
“And as she had great size and terrific energy of constitution she produced all kinds of excesses. Even physical ones: moles, blebs, hairs, bumps in her forehead, huge concentration in her neck; she had spiraling reddish hair springing with no negligible beauty and definiteness from her scalp, tangling as it widened up and out, cut duck-tail fashion in the back and scrawled out high above her ears.”
This novel is #81 on the Modern Library's 100 Best Books: Fiction