Saul Bellow: The Adventures of Augie March
Bellow’s third novel is definitely a lot more fun (and a lot longer) than its predecessors. It is in the realistic mode of other Chicago novels but it is also a Bildungsroman with a bit of the picaresque thrown in. We follow Augie March, a likeable young lad, as he becomes a man and we watch as he absorbs varied influences in his path to manhood, coming into contact with a variety of eccentric characters. He grows up in Depression-era Chicago and Bellow gives us a wonderful portrait of Depression-era Chicago, which it is interesting to compare to the Studs Lonigan trilogy. He lives with his quiet mother, his hustler older brother, Simon, and his mentally disabled younger brother, Georgie. More particularly, he lives with Grandma Lausch, who is a boarder and not their grandma but who rules the house with a rod of iron and is one of Bellow’s most memorable characters. The wonderful use of language in this novel starts with Grandma Lausch but can also be seen throughout the novel and helps make it so colorful.
Augie is a survivor. He is a bit of a hustler but not a bad one like his older brother, who is interested only in making money. While Augie is not averse to making money, he is more interested in life’s experiences. He has numerous jobs, not all legal, including managing a prize-fighter, smuggler and selling soap. When he works as a union organizer, he gets beaten up and that is what prompts him to leave for Mexico with Thea Fenchel. There he trains an eagle to catch iguanas but he also finds that Mexico can be as dangerous as Chicago and falling from a horse and almost killing himself brings this point home.
Back home, he volunteers for the Merchant Marine but, almost inevitably, his ship is torpedoed and he and the ship’s carpenter are the only survivors, from whom he gets his latest lessons in life. As a good American, he moves to Paris with his wife at the end of the War, a man who has survived and learned about life from his experiences, both the good ones and the bad ones. And you can’t ask better than that, both for a good life and a good book.
First published 1953 by Viking