This grand-scale heroic comedy tells the story of the exuberant young Augie, a poor Chicago boy growing up during the Depression. While his neighborhood friends all settle down into their various chosen professions, Augie, as particular as an aristocrat, demands a special destiny. He latches on to a wild succession of occupations, proudly rejecting each one as too limiting. It is not until he tangles with a glamorous perfectionist named Thea, a huntress with a trained eagle, that his independence is seriously threatened. Luckily, his nature, like the eagle's, breaks down under the strain. He goes on to recruit himself to even more outlandish projects, but always ducks out in time to continue improvising his unconventional career.
paperback, intro by Albert J. Guerard
I made it 100 pages in and decided that was enough.
Although there are major segments set in Mexico and afloat in the Atlantic, the majority of the novel is set in Chicago from the 1920s to the late 1940s. There's plenty of atmosphere, and Bellow has a good memory for the slang of the period. (At least, I assume so, as Bellow came up in this time and place.)
Others have reviewed this book better than I (Steve Sckenda here on Goodreads, for one) but I would like to mention some thoughts I had while listening.
I wish I had a dollar for every adjective Bellow used -- he loved to string them together, especially when describing people's physical appearances. He also seemed a bit fixated on handicaps and imperfections. Not only the obvious major characters -- Georgie, his developmentally-disabled brother; his weak-eyed and eventually blind mother; Einhorn, the near-quadriplegic employer -- have their handicaps pointed out. He points out the physical imperfections, great and small, of many characters. Only Augie and his girlfriends seem exempt -- and even Augie gets two teeth broken in a fight in Mexico and mentions the broken teeth several times afterwards.
Some other twentieth/twenty-first century writers -- John Updike and Richard Ford come to mind -- have revisited the same character multiple times. I almost wish Bellow had written a "Further Adventures of Augie March." He is a character almost too self-aware, but it doesn't seem to get him anywhere, and when the book ends, he is barely even 30 if I read it right. What would Augie become in 10, 20 or 30 years? Sadly, we'll never know (although he may appear in other books under other names?) Although this wasn't my favorite book of all time, I would still recommend it, and if you like audiobooks, the narrator, Tom Parker, does a great job with this one.
"In the cage we rose and dropped, rubbing elbows with bigshots and operators, commissioners, grabbers, heelers, tipsters, hoodlums, wolves, fixers, plaintiffs, flatfeet, men in Western hats and women in lizard shoes and fur coats, hothouse and arctic drafts mixed up, brute things and airs of sex, evidence of heavy feeding and systematic shaving, of calculations, grief, not-caring, and hopes of tremendous millions in concrete to be poured or whole Mississippis of bootleg whiskey and beer.” Such sentences occur on almost every page. They are like hall closets; you open them and everything falls out. "
That's true of this book, when you open it up, everything falls out, but going through the trouble to make sense of the contents is very satisfying.
I will include here some lines from a New Yorker essay on Saul Bellow intentions regarding the novel:
"Then, as he recalled, he experienced an epiphany: “I had a room in Paris where I was working, and one day as I was going there after breakfast, a bright spring morning, I saw water trickling down the street and sparkling.” The shining stream, he said, suggested to him the form of a new novel. Perhaps so, but a few other circumstances should be taken into account. This was the time, the postwar years, when American art came into its home country. Not just Bellow but many others walked out from under the shadow of the European masters and invented new, personal styles. Bellow was part of a Zeitgeist, and the stay in Europe encouraged his enlistment. The more he hated France, the more he loved America, and wanted to make an art that was like America—big and fresh and loud.
With this teeming book Bellow returned a Dickensian richness to the American novel. As he makes his way to a full brimming consciousness of himself, Augie careens through numberless occupations and countless mentors and exemplars, all the while enchanting us with the slapdash American music of his voice."