An appreciation of Saul Bellow's Augie March

Just the name, “Augie March” implies transaction and progress, and this book’s protagonist does not disappoint. A 20th century extension, in some ways, of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)The Adventures of Augie March (1953) moves its hero from one difficult circumstance to the next, each filled with colorful Americans who have moral import for the developing and thoughtful narrator. Like Twain,  Bellow is something of a realist–his Augie is bawdy and ill-behaved, as Huck would have been if the King and Duke had allowed him to follow up his nascent feelings for Mary Jane Wilks and that narrative had followed his lighting out for the territories.

Like Huck’s, it is a story written in a dialect, a voice inflected with the immigrant neighborhood, full of fragments and foreign syntax. It took me the first hundred pages or so to get used to it, but then it sings, often when describing the colorful people he falls in with. As I just did, Bellow/Augie is not afraid to break usage rules, such as not ending sentences with prepositions, since that is how people talk. Here he is describing a summer fling:

Briefly I ran with a waitress from the Symington, Wila Steiner. I took her dancing at the Merry Garden and went to the beach with her at night. She kindly let me get by most of the time with putting on the dog and pompousness, being a warm girl. She was nowise shy herself, making no bones about what we were together for.

It is a rollicking history of Chicago, too, from Capone’s time to after World War II, with vignettes set in Humboldt Park, Hyde Park, Evanston, and the Loop. The bastard (half-orphaned, like Huck) is trained by adults to lie (thus has a Huck-esque conscience), burgles, smuggles, hops trains with hoboes, sells newspapers, works in department stores, falls in and out of love, trains an eagle, rides (and is trampled by) a horse in Mexico, sees Trotsky (and fails to save his life), sells sportswear to upper-crusters, amenuensises for a cripple, skips a grade in school, works as a union organizer, plays winning poker, sells bathroom paint, works for and falls out with his brother, goes to university and conceives of a farm-boarding school for unfortunate city kids. An entertaining panoply of scenes (and yes, I know this is a fragment.) Like Augie. Drops them a lot.).

It’s also a distinctively modern work, the ethos being in doubt, but not overly anxious--I’d call it a comedy. Instead there is a down-to-earth pragmatism in Augie’s description of the differing perceptions of him and Thea, one of his grand amours, comes this epiphany:

Everyone tries to create a world he can live in, and what he can’t use he often can’t see. But the real world is already created, and if your fabrication doesn’t correspond, then even if you feel noble and insist on there being something better than what people call reality, that better something needn’t try to exceed what, in its actuality, since we know it so litte, may be very surprising. If a happy state of things, surprising; if miserable or tragic, no worse than what we invent.

I was surprised and made happy to read this book. It includes plenty of misery and some tragedy, but it is also funny, and more than once made me laugh out loud. I suggest that Chicago’s Public Library name it the 2011 One Book, One Chicago selection.

Updating PS:  Synchronicity? Shortly after this was posted, the CPL took my advice!
image taken responsibly from available licensed images

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