by Saul Below
The saga of a fatherless boy, brought up by his timid mother and overbearing grandmother, as he grows to a man, trying to make his way in Depression-era Chicago (and later, in other countries). Augie believes that “a man’s character is his fate,” and thus that “this fate, or what he settles for, is also his character.” Therefore, always searching for “a fate good enough” – somehow “fitting into other people’s schemes” but never coming up with any of his own – he feels buffeted by the vicissitudes of fate. He holds menial or exciting but temporary jobs, beds and falls in love with a series of women, tries his hand at thievery and academics, and ruminates on man’s nature. Over its 585 pages, Augie seems to be a series of events which do not necessarily overlap or build upon each other to a particular climax. While his stern-minded older brother Simon adapts himself to the world, marrying more or less for money and making swift, practical decisions about the family, Augie remains uncertain about his place, apparently ready “to dissolve in a bewilderment of choices.”
I found this quintessentially American existential epic a pleasure to read, despite its length, roller-coaster pace and crowd of characters. At times it flags, especially near the last 100 or so pages, and there is no real resolution; this is a (very generous) slice of life novel. But I loved it from start to finish anyway. In addition to its subject – man’s often futile quest to find his place in a largely uncaring and deceptive world – being quite near and dear to my heart, I was captivated by Bellow’s rich prose. Erudite, evocative and earthy, Bellow’s prose is the mark of a craftsman who has mastered the language, and it helps keep Augie’s story compelling even when otherwise nothing particularly noteworthy is happening. A brilliant book, and candidate for Great American Novel.