The Adventures of Augie March

by Saul Bellow

At nearly 600 pages, this book is difficult to read in more ways than one. I may have contracted carpal tunnel solely from trying to hold the thing up while reading in bed, plus the writing itself is dense and at times impenetrable. Saul Bellow has a way with words that is obtuse in so many places; I have not a single section of the text to quote in my critique. A reader like Classic Bitch can get frustrated or just tune out and get bored. I try not to let this get too much in the way of an otherwise good story.

Here we have yet another picaresque tale! The Modern Library goes in for this sort of thing, I guess. The Adventures of Augie March is the story of a boy becoming a young man in pre-WWII Chicago. The eponymous protagonist is very much a person who allows things just to happen to him in life, rather than doing much self-direction, hence the picaresque nature of the story. If I told you that this was at once a book about the working class, rich businessmen, petty theft, infidelity, higher education, abortion, the labor movement, eagles, reptiles, Mexico, the Merchant Marines, Paris, and dozens of other things I'm forgetting to mention here, you would likely not believe Classic Bitch. Yet it's all true, it's all in there, and there's so much more. I found myself making (to me, unfortunate) comparisons to the writing of Salman Rushdie here. Perhaps he has taken a page from Saul Bellow's book? The plots are meandering and sometimes inane, the protagonist falls ass-backward into new plots, and the list of characters is so long as to be mind-boggling (with new characters introduced in the final pages—while you're still trying to keep the old ones straight). So much like an American version of Midnight's Children, alas! I'll say that the only thing that saves this book for me is the main character's self-reflective nature. Yes, he's on a wild ride, but he knows it and even tries to express what he thinks about it. Truth be told, it is this process, per se, that is really what this book is about.

I think Bellow's writing shines when he takes to portraying narrow slices of time, rather than broad epochs in a character's life. The lengthy book is largely comprised of the latter, however. Chapter 12—over 60 pages of a very specific incident/a short period of time—comes off rather well. Likewise, chapter 18 is my absolute favorite for this same reason, plus there are a good deal of universal truths contained here. In fact, if you were to read only chapter 18, and then kind of multiply it on a grand scale in your head, you would really have what is the wonderful essence of The Adventures...

As I read this book, I recalled a period in my own growing up when my mother was seemingly way into Saul Bellow books. I can picture in my head Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, Mr. Sammler's Planet, and Humboldt's Gift all on her nightstand at one point or another. More than one of these had raised lettering on its paperback cover, and I recall green and purple as the dominant colors (it was the 1970s). I can't imagine—unless his style changed since Augie March—that Saul Bellow's writing would have appealed very much to my mother!? It actually kind of stretches my "version" of her in my memory. Interesting.