Saul Bellow’s The Adventures Of Augie March

The title of Saul Bellow’s third and most famous novel gives us some clue to its author’s ambitions, for you do not reference Twain’s Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn without putting yourself, quite conspicuously, in the tradition of “the great American novel.” The second clue comes from the justifiably famous opening paragraph, which cannot be read without appreciation for both Bellow’s brilliance and his narrator’s exuberance:

I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.

This is Augie March, surely one of American fiction’s most distinct voices, and he’s alerting us not only to his own style – unapologetic, free-wheeling, with the erudition of the autodidact – but to the structure of the novel: “Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.” That is Bellow’s warning to us that, for more than 250,000 words, we will be treated to the unabridged adventures, thoughts and feelings of his protagonist – and that we’d better be prepared.

Augie is the second of three children; he has an elder brother, Simon, and a younger brother, George, who “was born an idiot,” and will live out the rest of his life under supervisory care. Their mother is “simple-minded” and going blind, and their father disappeared long before any of them could form an attachment to him; Augie describes himself, tragically, as “the by-blow of a travelling man.” To supplement their meagre income, they take on a boarder, Grandma Lausch, a battle-ax of Russian heritage whose affections for the three boys – and Augie, in particular – is disguised by her tough-love approach to raising them: “Remember when I am in my grave, Augie, when I will be dead!” To escape these cramped circumstances, and contribute something to the family’s survival, Augie takes on a dizzying variety of jobs, on both sides of the law. He will work as a dog groomer, clothing salesman, personal butler, boxing manager and union organizer – and, when his fortunes diminish and he’s in need of fast money, a petty thief and smuggler of illegal immigrants. He diagnoses himself with “a weak sense of consequences,” and that is putting it mildly, but the upside of his experiences comes from the connections he make, and the impact these have on him:

I was around people of other kinds too. In one direction, a few who read whopping books in German or French and knew their physics and botany manuals backwards, readers of Nietzsche and Spengler. In another direction, the criminals. Except that I never thought of them as such, but as the boys I knew in the poolroom and saw also at school, dancing the double-toddle in the gym at lunch hour, or in the hot-dog parlors. I touched all sides, and nobody knew where I belonged. I had no good idea of that myself.

Augie does, indeed, “touch all sides,” and the question of where he belongs – where, in this ever-expanding America, he fits in – provides the driving force behind his adventuring. To his credit, he matches his outward explorations with an inner enrichment, catalyzed by his discovery of literature and philosophy. “I lay in my room and read, feeding on print and pages like a famished man.”

Augie’s older brother, Simon, becomes a kind of foil, for though he has all of Augie’s ambition and then some, he has none of his character or scruples. After a string of get-rich-quick schemes fail for him, he takes the more effective approach of marrying the overweight daughter of a wealthy industrialist, thereby securing himself the startup capital he needs to make something of himself in the world – and condescend to Augie, perpetually, for his failure to do so. After one such lecture, in which Simon likens himself to Henry Ford, Augie forgets himself for a moment, long enough to offer an honest rejoinder: “Oh, but you’re not Henry Ford. After all, you married a rich girl.” Simon’s response tells us everything we need to know about his character: “The question is[…] what you have to suffer to get money, how much effort there is in it.”

The novel’s greatest strength – its first-person protagonist, and his incredible mix of street sense and erudition – might also function as its greatest weakness, for Augie’s gaze is too unique, too particular, to admit of an impartial opinion. We see everything through the prism of his consciousness, and that perspective obscures as much and as often as it illuminates. Outside of Augie, few of the many other characters ever feel very real, limited, as they are, to bit parts in his life. As for structure – well, there is no obvious structure to the novel: no beginning, middle and end, neatly demarcated, but rather a series of events taking place across North America (including in Canada and Mexico) and across social spheres, and the dizzying pace of the tour frequently overwhelms the reader. What keeps us going, turning page after page, is the pleasure of being in Augie’s company, and – for a writer, for a novel – that is its own kind of success.