two words: poignant picaresque
I am an American, Chicago born -Chicago, that somber city- and go at things as I’ve taught myself, free-style and will make the record in my own way: first to knock first admitted, p.1
So many promises are made in this opener – about the narration, the setting, the characterization.
Bellow starts delivering immediately, especially on characterization. Grandma Lausch is a ‘Machiavelli of small street,’ for whom ‘it was great to make us take a long swig of her mixture of reality and to watch the effect come up sober in our eyes’; Mr. Lulov is a ‘serene bogus’; Mrs. Kreindl is a ‘woman quiet and modest to the neighbours and violently quarrelsome at home’; Simon’s personality darkens with his chipped tooth; and Georgie’s wisdom is ‘kept prisoner by incapacity’. Much later, there is the cop with ‘a face with one eye emphasis’.
Augie’s imagery is stark and brilliant. The best is reserved for Augie’s Ma, who
occupied a place among women conquered by a superior force of love, like those women whom Zeus got the better of in animal form and who next had to take cover from his furious wife. Not that I can see my big, gentle, dilapidated, scrubbing, and lugging mother as a fugitive of immense beauty from such classy wrath…But she does have a place among such women by the deeper right of continual payment. p.10
Stunning prose! I am hooked, but not a lot is happening. Not yet.
The sequence of action begins fairly chronologically, no surprises here as Augie tries to recreate events faithfully. Thankfully, this doesn’t last very long. Precision gives way to poetry with one terrific line:
Saying “various jobs,” I give out the Rosetta stone, so to speak, to my entire life. p.28
These two words are the briefest summary of Augie’s life, and a misdirect if there ever was one.
Augie’s life degenerates into a series of vignettes loosely strung together by dates and people, and even these become increasingly blurry and bizarre, as he sheds lives like snakeskin, hitchhikes to Chicago, hunts lizards with a trained eagle in Acatla, encounters a panhandler from his dreams in Naples, and gets shipwrecked with a mad scientist off The Canaries.
I was thrown for fair on the free spinning of the world.
Furthermore, there is the, ‘Let it be hot…‘p.69 and ‘Suppose it was lunchtime…’p.74. Augie is always telling us that his memory is unreliable, that he’s only guessing what others are thinking and feeling and is not a credible omniscient third, but a very fallible ‘I’.
Believing in and keeping up with Augie is all the fun, though.
Then there is the setting – Chicago, that ‘somber city’ by the lake, Chi-town, New Gotham… it’s legendary! Al Capone, Bugs Moran, Joe Aeillo, all are Augie’s contemporaries and he gets a taste of it from the Einhorns, his shady benefactors, in more ways than one. After graduating high school William Einhorn takes him to a hooker. Augie comments,
Paying didn’t matter. Nor using what other people used. That’s what city life is.
Augie can’t walk anonymously on a street, or rob a department store without the ‘store dick’ being a childhood friend. He knows everyone and everywhere. Chicago is the familiar. Augie always returns to heal his heart, lick his wounds, be himself.
You enter your native water like a fish.
Chicago, the somber city, is Augie’s home.
I’m really glad I strapped myself in for The Adventures of Augie March: freestyle is an understatement. The beginning is like the departure of any other train ride, gentle and ambling. Then comes the stomach-churning jolt and the ascent begins. I cling for dear life for three days and 500 pages; now red-eyed and white-knuckled I’m struggling to come off the high of kissing an angel.
By the dénouement, I’m heart-broken it has to end, and am tempted to close the book ten pages out. But I persevere, because there will always be a homecoming, like Augie’s, when I read this novel again.
homecoming-kanye west feat. chris martin
the very thought of you-billie holiday
the wings of a dove-blues busters
wherever i lay my hat (that’s my home)-paul young
born to be wild-damien ‘jr gong’ marley
one crowded hour-augie march