Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Adventures of Augie March

The Adventures of Augie March

Saul Bellow (1915-2005)

The third Bellow book that I've read on the list after Herzog and Humboldt's Gift. Not your typical novel. We follow Augie March, a likable normal guy from Chicago, around from adventure to adventure which is all a grand buildup for, well, nothing. There is no grand finale here. What the reader gets is a lot like real life, no happily ever after, just onward to more challenges and opportunities.
Augie is born into a down on their luck Jewish family around 1920 in Chicago. Apparently the first paragraph is very famous for its declaration of Americaness, but I didn’t notice it the first time around. Augie seemed about as American as you can get, resourceful, immigrant family, good natured but makes some questionable choices.
Augie March is all about fate. Augie muses on it often. The characters he encounters, the trips he takes (smuggling immigrants in a stolen car, working at a pool hall, stealing books for profit, teaching an eagle to hunt, and excursion to Mexico, getting sunk by a Japanese ship in the Pacific) all seem to inflict themselves on Augie. He reacts to the different circumstances, but does he really have any agency over what his future will be?
Augie himself is an interesting character, streetwise but philosophical. He’s as good at hitching rides and avoiding the law as he is at opining on ancient Greeks. The book is more valuable, however, in its depiction of the Great Depression. Chicago is tough and gritty, filled with guys trying to make a buck whether it’s honest or not, and women who are tougher and more resilient than the men. There’s a gap between the rich and poor which Augie straddles precariously at times, at others he struggles to break through, and sometimes he revels in a Bohemian lifestyle.
I thought Herzog was a more impressive work by Bellow. It’s main character was more interesting. If I could change Augie (and yeah, I know Saul Bellow probably isn’t super pumped to have a hack edit his classic) I would have had Augie get in on the plan to protect Trotsky in Mexico. Bellow was scheduled to meet with the Russian leader the day he was assassinated, it would have been neat to see Augie deal with a big historic event, it also would have served as a climax and set up an extended denouement with WWII serving as closure of Augie’s wanderings and an entrance into the next phase of his life. Maybe that’s the point though. We don’t live our lives like a novel. If we succeed or fail we don’t get a handy “The End” as the sun sets. We move on to the next thing, or fight off whatever fate has in store for us.

Rating 6/10: Loses steam after the Mexico trip. Great characters, great plot points, seemingly no story arc (but that’s probably the point).

1 comment:

Pam said...

I was not a fan of this book either. It was my first experience with Saul Bellow so part of my distate I chalked up to that, but the other part I chalked up to a character I could not get into and a story that didn't go anywhere. Maybe that's just Saul Bellow though??? :)