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.”