The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

October 19, 2011

Augie March tells his own story beginning with his childhood in depression-era Chicago. His family is poor and his mother weak. The decisions are made by a domineering and realist grandmother. Augie’s description of her early in the novel gives a taste:

If wit and discontent don’t necessarily go together, it wasn’t from the old woman that I learned it. She was impossible to satisfy.

She does her best to ensure that the boys do well in school, stay out of trouble with the law, and learn to lie effectively to obtain medical care or food despite not qualifying for particular programs. Her goal is not so much “good” boys as successful boys. She wants for them whatever will get them ahead in the world and, hence, allow them to help with the family bills.

[T]he old lady, following her own idea of what that fate would be, continued to find various jobs for me.

Saying “various jobs,” I give out the Rosetta stone, so to speak, of my entire life.

Augie bounces from job to job, from mentor to mentor, from love to love, never able to settle into a position in life. He strives for something extraordinary, though he is not sure what that something is. His brother, Simon, is neither as idealistic nor as unfocused and, thus, generally makes more money. But this is plot and I like the writing most.

Bellow is particularly good at identifying and conveying the essential quality of a person. Describing a hulking, good-natured man called “Five Properties”, the narrator follows a few examples of the way Five Properties jokes and interacts with people with this nice summation:

He gave himself an awful lot of delight.

I like this guy as minor as he is to the story.

But the minor characters are important, Augie realizes that, particularly at a young age, he is more a product of influences than an independent agent.

All the influences were lined up waiting for me. I was born, and there they were to form me, which is why I tell you more of them than of myself.

As skillfully created a narrator as you can find, he tells us, of course, all about himself in the way he describes his “influences”. Bellow has that felicity with language that allows an author to speak on multiple levels simultaneously. For example:

William Einhorn was the first superior man I knew. He had a brain and many enterprises, real directing power, philosophical capacity, and if I were methodical enough to take thought before an important and practical decision and also (N.B.) if I were really his disciple and not what I am, I’d ask myself, “What would Caesar suffer in this case? What would Machiavelli advise or Ulysses do? What would Einhorn think?” I’m not kidding when I enter Einhorn in this eminent list. It was him that I knew, and what I understand of them in him. Unless you want to say that we’re at the dwarf end of all times and mere children whose only share in grandeur is like a boy’s share in fairy-tale kings, beings of a different kind from times better and stronger than ours. But if we’re comparing men and men, not men and children or men and demigods…if we don’t have any special wish to abdicate into some different, lower form of existence out of shame for our defects before the golden faces of these and other old-time men, then I have the right to praise Einhorn and not care about smiles of derogation from those who think the race no longer has in any important degree the traits we honor in these fabulous names. But I don’t want to be pushed into exaggeration by such opinion, which is the opinion of students who, at all ages, feel their boyishness when they confront the past.

If you suspect Einhorn is not quite as superior as Augie believes, you win a gold star. Augie does not, however, and that is brilliant. With a blindspot in his self-awareness, Augie scoffs at the “boyishness” and naivete of others who, incorrectly, believe men are different now than they were then. It is clear that Augie has caught a touch of hero-worship, a malady of youth if there ever was one. He uses the then-fashionable “N.B.” for “nota bene”, which became fashionable because a (then current) hero comparable to Ceasar or Machiavelli, namely FDR, had used it in one of his fireside chats. Augie is all enthusiasm and praise when, as Bellow also deftly conveys, the truth is much more messy and complex.

We learn something about Augie and something about Einhorn while being prodded with an observation on the world and history. Who are the great men of today? Or, alternatively, would intimate analysis of all great men bring them down to earth as flawed, sometimes petty or weak or selfishly grasping? From history to metaphysics and back through philosophy, Bellow peppers this novel with a learnedness as impressive as it is unobtrusive.

Bellow is, as James Wood has said, one of the “really great prose writers.” He was as eloquent writing about cars as people or ideas:

[E]arly in the morning Joe Gorman picked me up in a black Buick; it was souped up, I could tell the first instant, from the hell-energy that gives you no time to consider….[I]n and out of Gary in two twists and on the road for Toledo, where the speed increased, and the mouth of the motor opened out like murder, not panting, but liberated to do what it was made for.

Slender, pressing down nervous on the wheel, with his long nose of broken form and the color running fast up his face and making a narrow crossing on his forehead, Gorman was like a jockey in his feeling toward the car. You could see what pleasure he got out of finding what he needed to wrap his nerves in.

Bellow’s are sentences to touch and stroke. His prose has a distinctive sensuousness even as it burrows to sharp, slicing truths. The Adventures of Augie March manages to surprise with little stocking-stuffers on each page. And that is the least of the achievements here.

Not everyone, apparently, fell in love with Augie. That I can believe. Augie is not a conventional hero who prevails over all obstacles. Life treats him like a rugby ball, punching, kicking, and grasping at him. Bad guys win while Augie loses. Mostly, though, the characters lose as people usually, eventually, do. In the decades since Augie entered the scene, many critics have marked this book as Bellow’s arrival as a serious man of letters. The novel marked a less restricted approach than he had used in his first two novels. He is quoted later as saying about Augie March:

I took off many of these restraints…I think I took off too many, and went too far, but I was feeling the excitement of discovery. I had just increased my freedom, and like any emancipated plebeian I abused it at once.

And he was probably right. The story itself is a many-armed seamonster. Augie is buffeted about like a mote of dust in a droplet of water. He is acted upon more than he acts, making him a frustrating protagonist. His powerful but diffuse ambition stymies itself, pushing in too many directions or none at all. This is conveyed well, but perhaps there is too much of it. A partial listing of Augie’s jobs gives a flavor of how widely he ventures: newsstand clerk, book thief, dog groomer, eagle trainer, salesman, bodyguard, smuggler, and merchant marine. Augie March does not have the same tightness of Bellow’s later Seize the Day. A little more authorial tyranny might have improved the book. Or not.

Bellow acknowledged “the great mass of sand and gravel” in the novel but seemed pleased, as am I, that he “took [his] chance.”


Night by Elie Wiesel

December 28, 2010

This is a book of humbling power. Reading it changes a person. Like Cynthia Ozick’s short story The Shawl, Night feels like a portal into the abyss. Among the cruelest things the Nazis managed was to show how any of us can be broken, how unimaginable cruelty can force a mother to scream into a shawl while her baby is thrown into an electric fence or a son to wish, if only for a moment, that his father would die so he, the son, can focus only on his own survival.

As in Ozick’s short story, the writing in Night is spare. The focus is not on evoking place, though you will shiver with cold. Elie Wiesel does not try to unmask the tormenters, rather he bears witness to the moral failings of humans placed in inconceivable conditions. Most of us who have been spared such cruelty comfort ourselves with the notion that, if ever tested, we would pass. But no one passes.

The basic story is that of fifteen year-old Elie Wiesel. He and his family live in a small town, Sighet, in Transylvania, Hungary. The story picks up in 1944. Nazi Germany is being pushed back on all fronts and, so, the Jewish community in Sighet believes they have been spared the worst. They are wrong. Elie is transformed from a studiously religious boy who wants to study the Kabbalah into a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald and the greatest concentration of evil Europe has ever seen.

Many books are called essential. Few truly are. This one is.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children who bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.

Never.

The edition of the book on our shelves reproduces Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech. I do recommend reading the speech after (or before) the book. The book itself is not about redemption or even survival. There is only horror. Elie Wiesel’s speech is a welcome counterbalance to the despair inherent in reading Night and it is an impetus to a more involved, more caring, more decent life.

[O]ne person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our life will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.

The take away for me is not how I would have lived as a Jew or a German or a Frenchman or a Pole or any other race, religion, or nationality during the Holocaust. The question is: how do I live this moment and the next.


Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

January 16, 2010

Superlatives are ineffectual to convey the genius of Vladimir Nabokov. The man is a literary giant, perhaps unrivaled in receiving almost universal acclaim. (As Juliette Tang of XYZ has pointed out: “Literary merit is in certain ways contingent, as beauty is, on the taste of the beholder. Nabokov’s established literary merit, however, happens to be much less contingent on anyone’s opinion than any other writer that comes to my mind.”). If you have not read Nabokov, I encourage you to do so at the first opportunity. The first opportunity happens to be now.

There are many brilliant works from which you might choose. Lolita is oft considered his greatest achievement. Pale Fire is also oft considered his greatest achievement. Speak, Memory is too, but falls in a separate category. Alright, you also have Ada as a contender, though it is a longshot. So, why start with Pnin?

Well, you should start with Pnin (pronounced: P’ neen) because it is “…considered the most accessible of the novels Vladimir Nabokov composed in English.” Considered by whom? Most immediately, by me. David Lodge, whose introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition I read was also published in The Guardian, pointed out: “[I]t was Pnin which first established [Nabokov’s] reputation as a writer of distinction and originality in the medium of English, and as an American rather than an émigré author.

While Lolita and Pale Fire are greater accomplishments, Pnin was the book that first put Nabokov on the American literary map. It contains brilliant sentences, a surface story that is straightforward, comic, and enjoyable, and depths sufficient to please literary-minded bibliophiles. In other words, Pnin is neither too demanding nor too slight. That is not to say you are guaranteed to like it.

While John Self over at The Asylum is an admirer (“It is clever, funny, elegantly Nabokovian and beautifully written.”), you will find among his commenters the occasional dissident. The reason usually being that the narrative feels disjointed. The book did begin as a collection of short stories for the New Yorker focusing on the purported protagonist Timofey Pnin. Nabokov, it turns out, wrote the pieces as both a break from the much darker Lolita and as a means of raising funds while he finished that work and found a publisher. The book is not a typical novel with a smoothly seamless narrative, but it is a success. Nabokov had his rest, received his money, and produced a nicely rendered “comedy of academic manners in a romantically disenchanted world.” (New York Times)

You can follow any of the foregoing links to wonderful discussions of Pnin. I doubt my ability to add anything erudite to the discussion. I will indulge, though, in a brief summary of my reasons for loving this novel and recommending it as an entry point. Nabokov writes sentences as beautiful as anyone’s, brilliantly filling in characters and mining their psychology for wit, irony, or malignancy.

Prior to the nineteen-forties,…to reveal a glimpse of that white underwear by pulling up a trouser leg too high would have seemed to Pnin as indecent as showing himself to ladies minus collar and tie; for even when decayed Mme. Roux, the concierge of the squalid apartment house in the Sixteenth Arrondissement of Paris – where Pnin, after escaping from Leninized Russia and completing his college education in Prague, had spent fifteen years – happened to come up for the rent while he was without his faux col, prim Pnin would cover his front stud with a chaste hand. All this underwent a change in the heady atmosphere of the New World. Nowadays, at fifty-two, he was crazy about sun-bathing, wore sports shirts and slacks, and when crossing his legs would carefully, deliberately, brazenly display a tremendous stretch of bare shin.

Pnin, the character, is both ridiculous and heroic. He opens the book on a train, happy with himself for having found in the timetables “a more convenient train” than he had been advised to take.

Unfortunately for Pnin, his timetable was five years old and in part obsolete.

The train no longer stops where Pnin would like.

The narrator relays this information very soon, letting the reader know that this tale is told from an interested viewpoint. PninIs not merely the story of Pnin, but the story of Pnin as told by an interested party. I will not bang on about it, but I love Nabokov’s use of an unreliable narrator. With Nabokov it is not a gimmick, it is a tool wielded splendidly.

The light touch Nabokov uses in this novel is an excellent introduction, but should most definitely not be the last Nabokov you read. His masterpieces are just that.

I will let David Lodge sum up:

Pnin…ultimately…is…uniquely and quintessentially Nabokovian, having a family resemblance to his other works without being exactly like any of them.

*For an engaging discussion of Nabokov and his work by one of the best critics alive, click here.


The Quiet American by Graham Greene

August 28, 2009

Often lauded as Greene’s masterpiece, The Quiet American is an incredibly well-crafted novel set in Vietnam while the French were still fighting and we Americans were creeping into the mire. While his politics have always been controversial, Graham Greene managed such prescience with this novel that he could be mistaken as a prophet.

The quiet American of the title is a caricature, but we so often live up to the caricatures of ourselves. QuietAmericanCertainly, we did in Vietnam. The Quiet American was first published in 1955, well before America was inextricably tangled in the affairs of Vietnam. Whether through depth of insight or stopped-clock coincidence, Graham Green outlined in advance the history of American involvement in Indo-China. He writes so skillfully and has such fundamental understanding of individual human beings that the natural interpretation is that Graham Greene knew what he was talking about.

The politics of the novel are far less interesting, to me, than the craftsmanship and the characterizations. Greene had published oustanding works like The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter by the time he penned this classic. Through these prior works, Greene had polished and had demonstrated his enviable skill as an author and, with The Quiet American, provides an awesome display of his highly refined technical abilities.

The novel relates the story of Thomas Fowler (the narrator), Alden Pyle (the quiet American), Phuong (Fowler’s mistress), and Vigot (French inspector). We learn almost immediatley that Pyle is dead. While portions of the novel relate the progress of Vigot’s investigation into Pyle’s death, the investigation serves primarily to provide a frame in which to set the story of Fowler and Pyle. Greene manages the shifting time frames effortlessly while spinning a complex yarn that plays out without a snag.

‘Not guilty,’ I said. I told myself that it was true. Didn’t Pyle always go his own way? I looked for any feeling in myself, even resentment at a policeman’s suspicion, but I could find none. No one but Pyle was responsible.

Fowler’s clinical analysis of Pyle’s death is typical for the man. He approaches Pyle’s attempts to woo Phuong in much the same way. Fowler is a man of the world; he is cynical and removed. Pyle is idealistic, naive, and passionate. None of these traits, though, is the tragic flaw in Pyle’s character. At least, Pyle’s tragic flaw is too nuanced to be captured by any of those adjectives. Fowler describes Pyle’s failing of character about a quarter of the way into the book:

[H]e was incapable of conceiving the pain he might cause others. On one occasion — but that was months later — I lost control and thrust his foot into it, into the pain I mean, and I remember how he turned away and looked at his stained choe in perplexity and said, ‘I must get a shine before I see the Minister.’ I knew then he was already forming his phrases in the style he had learnt from York Harding. Yet he was sincere in his way: it was coincidence that the sacrifices were all paid by others, until that final night under the bridge to Dakow.

When Greene later has Fowler describe this scene during a flashback, the effect is powerfully haunting. The earlier description I have quoted resonates profoundly in the background of the more immediate and charged description of events that occurs later in the novel. This is but one example of Greene’s masterful writing. By foreshadowing the (past) event without disclosing too much, he sets the reader up for a later revelation.

He sets scenes nicely too. From the feel of cafes in the city to rice paddies farther out to the cockpit of a bomber, QuietAmerican2Greene pulls the reader into both his story and its setting. It helps, of course, that we now know from movies and later books some of what makes Vietnam such a compelling setting. But Greene’s work preceded these others; it anticipated them.

For all its technical achievement and political foresight, the book is also very personal. While Pyle is not only a character in the book, he is also caricature and allegorical device. Fowler, though, is as fully developed a character as you can expect and an intelligently observant one too.

‘I didn’t mean that,’ Pyle said. ‘When you are in love you want to play the game, that’s all.’ That’s true, I thought, but not as he innocently means it. To be in love is to see yourself as someone else sees you, it is to be in love with the falsified and exalted image of yourself. In love we are incapable of honour — the courageous act is no more than playing a part to an audience of two. Perhaps I was no longer in love but I remembered.

As well as being an entertaining tale of romance, murder, and international intrigue, The Quiet American is a master class in writing. The book is short and relatively fast-paced. I have had little excuse for not reading it until now. If only all writers had the technical proficiency of Greene…..and his literary ear…and his gift for stories. If only all writers shared his genius, we readers would be in heaven.


Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

August 6, 2009

I read this as part of my effort to catch up on major authors I have overlooked or have never gotten around to reading (e.g. Bellow and Cheever with Maxwell coming soon). As with many of these forays into the “greats”, this one was quite rewarding. Things Fall Apart is an enjoyable, concise, and thought-provoking read.

ThingsFallOkonkwo, the central character, has a lazy father who is most famous for owing debts. The shame of this drives Okonkwo to achieve. His ultimate goal is to take the highest title in the tribe, something only the wealthy and respected can achieve. His goal is realistic given his impressive physique and incredible drive. The opening paragraph relates Okonkwo’s fame and stature in the village (Umuofia) which began with victory in an important wrestling match. Additional details on Okonkwo’s rise are dribbled out throughout the early parts of the novel:

He was a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father he could stand the look of blood. In Umuofia’s latest war he was the first to bring home a human head. That was his fifth head, and he was not an old man yet. On great occasions such as the funeral of a village celebrity he drank his palm-wine from his first human head.

Okonkwo’s exploits are motivated less by bravery than by fear of failure. He tries to be everything his father was not:

Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. Even as a little boy he had resented his father’s failure and weakness…And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion — to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.

Being so driven, Okonkwo is able to survive some early tragedies, including a crop failure “that…had been enough to break the heart of a lion”. He puts more importance on his stature within the tribe than on personal or family connections. For Okonkwo, honor and reputation displace normal human compassion. His defining feature is a fierce ambition so consuming it very nearly must lead to tragedy. Okonkwo is a classical hero.

The novel explores several themes. On one level, the novel is a close examination of one tragic hero. On another level, Okonkwo represents tribal Africa and its collision with European colonialism. The first half to two-thirds of the novel relates Okonkwo’s rise, fall, and redemption within his village of Umuofia. In the second half, modernity looms. Because Okonkwo’s personal identity is so closely linked to his status in the tribe, it is easy to interpret Okonkwo’s personal story as an allegory for the clash of cultures as it played out in Africa.

This book does many things well. Okonkwo is an excellent character about whom the reader cares despite his unlikeability. Achebe’s telling of Okonkwo’s life story is full of insights into the human experience and the individual’s place in society and the world. As importantly, this book provides a window into African tribal life before contact with colonists. Achebe does a masterful job of straddling the cultural divide. As an example, he manages to write about tribal beliefs (e.g. their gods, fear of evil spirits, etc.) with neither condescension nor naive credulity. The reader is drawn, as far as a reader can be, into the mindset of those holding mystical beliefs, without delving into the truth or falsity of them. And, too, the story has a number of compelling plot twists. Achebe is a very good storyteller.

Achebe manages to combine these elements into a novel which, though very personal, addresses broad issues of culture. He skillfully provides the juxtaposition of sacrificial tribal practices performed for the sake of tribal cohesion and similarly sacrificial colonial practices engaged in for the preservation and advancement of civilization. Achebe writes simultaneously with compassion for his characters and with fidelity to the reality of their flaws. This is a bravely honest book. And that is its greatest accomplishment.

Things Fall Apart is a brilliant and accessible work. I highly recommend it.


Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

July 13, 2009

While looking for something else, I noticed the Bellow section. I previously read one of his short stories, “A Silver Dish” (in the anthology America’s Best Short Stories of the Century), but had not read any of his novels. I decided that, as the novel I was looking for was temporarily unavailable, I would grab something Bellow. After much serious consideration, I ultimately chose SEIZE THE DAY. It is quite short.

Bellow is a stunning stylist. He crafts sentences that are worthy of having a novel wrapped around them. For instance, Bellow delights with the following when Wilhelm, the protagonist, is watching an old man at the commodities exchange:

A long perfect ash formed on the end of the cigar, the white ghost of the leaf with all its veins and its fainter pungency. It was ignored, in its beauty, by the old man. For it was beautiful. Wilhelm he ignored as well.

SeizeTheDayAside from its aestheticism, this paragraph provides a sense of Wilhelm’s place in the world. Wilhelm is a sort of Willy Loman, an everyman, if not entirely a loser, certainly not a winner. And, yet, as implied from this sentence, there is something beautiful about him.

As the book opens, Wilhelm is an out of work salesman with an estranged wife, two sons he rarely sees, a rather cold father, and a pressing need for money. He also holds three orders of lard in the commodities market. The action of the novel takes place place in a single day and revolves around Wilhelm’s need for cash. His father, Dr. Adler, is a man of sufficient means to help. Whether Wilhelm will ask and whether Dr. Adler will oblige are questions that provide some of the narrative tension.

However, the most pressing issues involve the orders of lard. Wilhelm knows nothing about the commodities market and so finds himself at a loss when the price for lard drops the choice is between selling or waiting for a rebound. “The psychologist, Dr. Tamkin, had got him into this.” Tamkin and Wilhelm first met at a nightly gin game where Wilhelm “had never won. Not once.” Dr. Tamkin is, aside from Wilhelm, easily the most interesting character of the novel.

What a rare peculiar bird he was, with those pointed shoulders, that bare head, his loose nails, almost claws, and those brown, soft, deadly, heavy eyes.

Dr. Tamkin had enthralled Wilhelm with the possibility of easy money in commodities. Wilhelm is not greedy, he only hopes to “work out a little steady income.” An early exchange between Wilhelm and Dr. Tamkin sets the tone of their relationship and warns the reader of the danger ahead:

“I’d be so grateful if you’d show me how to work it.”

“Sure I will. I do it regularly. I’ll bring you my receipts if you like. And do you want to know something? I approve of your attitude very much. You want to avoid catching money fever. This type of activity is filled with hostile feeling and lust. You should see what it does to some of these fellows. They go on the market with murder in their hearts.”

“What’s that I once heard a guy say?” Wilhelm remarked. “A man is only as good as what he loves.”

“That’s it — just it,” Tamkin said. “You don’t have to go about it their way. There’s also a calm and rational, a psychological approach.”

Wilhelm puts his last seven hundred dollars into the market under Tamkin’s guidance. This foray is, technically, against his father’s advice:

…Dr. Adler…had warned him once against Dr. Tamkin. Rather casually — he was a very bland old man — he said, “Wilky, perhaps you listen too much to this Tamkin. He’s interesting to talk to. I don’t doubt it. I think he’s pretty common but he’s a persuasive man. However, I don’t know how reliable he may be.”

Wilhelm is less impressed by the advice than by how it exemplifies his father’s “detachment” regarding his welfare.

Wilhelm’s relationship with his father is quite strained. Wilhelm has been a disappointment to his father since quitting college to try acting on the advice of a talent agent who told him he had the “it” factor. The talent agent turned out not to be quite what he said he he was. Wilhelm’s greatest acting role was as an extra in a movie. His father never forgives him for quitting school for such frivolity. He had wanted “Wilky” to be a doctor.

Wilhelm had been unwilling to go into medicine. In a flashback to a conversation with his mother, he explains:

“I can’t bear hospitals. Besides, I might make a mistake and hurt someone or even kill a patient. I couldn’t stand that. Besides, I haven’t got that sort of brains.”

While his father’s disappointment is simple and straightforward, Wilhelm’s feelings toward his father are more complex. He seeks his father’s love and approval, yet finds his father repulsive in various ways. Despite his revulsion, and with all of New York, at least, to choose from when Wilhelm leaves his wife, he moves into the old hotel where his father lives, albeit Wilhelm’s room is several floors below his father’s. They meet often for meals, despite the fact that neither of them enjoys the other’s company. On this day, his father brings an acquaintance, Mr. Perls, as buffer or distraction. The intricacies of this father-son relationship are largely revealed during breakfast, even with Mr. Perls present.

Bellow introduces the important aspects of Wilhelm’s character through two early interactions with otherwise irrelevant characters. On his way to meet his father for breakfast, he stops for a newspaper. Bellow manages Wilhelm’s interaction with Rubin, “the man at the newsstand”, magnificently. While buying a newspaper is usually a routine and mundane event, Bellow uses the exchange to give the reader insight into Wilhelm. Though Wilhelm and Rubin exchange pleasantries daily, Wilhelm invests their interaction with unusual weight.

The other character is the clerk at the hotel. The clerk gives Wilhelm his mail, which includes a bill. As with Rubin, Wilhelm gives the clerk far more thought than the clerk apparently gives him. This is the kind of fellow Wilhelm is.

Wilhelm has not been successful in life, but he has managed a middle class existence. His not having a job is partly due to principle rather than any professional failing. Wilhelm is not, like his father, a lover of money. As his interactions with Rubin and the clerk show, he respects men as men, regardless of social position. His charitableness, his willingness to assume the best of others is his best feature. Of course, it also leads to gullibility, as with the talent agent.

I do not want to reveal more regarding the relationship between Wilhelm and Tamkin for fear of spoiling the primary pleasure of the novel. Is Tamkin reliable or not? Will he come through for Wilhelm or not? How will Wilhelm solve his problems? It is absolutely delightful to watch the relationship between Wilhelm and Tamkin unfold.

Bellow is a superb writer, both of sentences and of whole works. This novel, as Cynthia Ozick points out in her introduction to this edition, is complete. She compares Bellow to the great Russian novelists and she is correct. But this is not a Russian epic, it is a Wall Street novel, a New York novel, an American novel. It is also a philosophical novel. Bellow writes with elegance, wit, and weight. He packs a world into these 118 pages.

I am sold on Bellow.