Monkey was the basis of much thought with us… see-no-evil, speak-no-evil, hear-no-evil, a lower trinity of the house. The advantage of such lesser gods is that you can take their name any way you like. p.9
This is the philosophy spoon-fed to young Augie by Grandma Lausch: She and Simon teach him to rort the system and Augie, ophan of such divinity and having a ‘weak sense of consequences,’ obeys. Until he gets caught. Then, he is emotionally cast off by them both. But fallen or not, he is an angel.
Augie is taken in by William Einhorn and inducted into more sophisticated crime, but after Einhorn’s loss of ‘Croesus proportion’ in the Depression, he is once again cut loose. He takes up with Gorman, a menacing criminal, but Augie, with his ‘soft answer’ and inability to be a ‘trick Tybalt all coiled up to stab’, is rendered a failed protégé. When Einhorn hears of his association with Gorman, he rehires him, if only to protect him, until Augie finds a job at a department store.
While at this job, Augie is ‘adopted’ by the wealthy and childless Rendlings. Mr. Rendling, his upper lip having ‘a pretty big perch on the other one’, and the demanding Mrs. Rendling see the radiant virtue in Augie and offer him the position of son and heir. But Augie has no use for earthly trappings and rejects their kind offer. He sheds everything they have given him, and to ratify this decision he takes up with the wicked Gorman again with near-horrific consequences.
Augie, by pure luck, narrowly escapes arrest after a botched ‘job’. Penniless and alone, he hitchhikes and train-jumps back to Chicago with only an almost-rape and a night in jail to speak of. He is hungry and filthy, but free and whole. The monkeys were looking out for him.
Meanwhile, Simon has fallen on hard times and rents the house out under Augie. Homeless, he takes up with Padilla, a childhood acquaintance, and joins in on a book-stealing racket. But Augie is a bad thief and ends up keeping the books on poetry and philosophy, and giving his clients too much credit. He soon forfeits this occupation as well, but he is not empty-handed. Padilla introduces him to a new aphorism:
Either it comes easy or not at all.
Simon reenters Augie’s life a wealthy man, having married a rich coal-miner’s daughter, Charlotte Magnus. Though their marriage is loveless, they both share a hunger for power that rivals Macbeth’s.
Unsex me here… A call so hard, to what is so hard, that it makes the soul neuter.
To consolidate his status, Simon wants Augie to marry Charlotte’s cousin, Lucy. He conforms to their plans and the artifice – the lackluster courtship, the dandy clothing – to make the still reckless and suicidal Simon happy. This arrangement takes Augie to the ‘end zone of his adaptability.’ Thankfully, his angelic act of helping Mimi procure an abortion gifts him a release. He walks away with nothing after the engagement is axed. Augie once again narrowly escapes a different kind of prison.
Soon after Augie obligingly follows Thea, a girl he met while with the Rendlings and the love of his life, to Mexico to hunt snakes and lizards with a trained eagle.
I was never before so taken up with a single human being.
After the failed affair he returns home literally broken from a horse fall. In typical Augie fashion, his problem with Thea was that he empathized too much with the lizards. But while in Mexico, he meets a kindred spirit, Stella. She says of them both,
‘You and I are the kind of people other people are always trying to fit into their schemes.’… I was grateful for her plain way of naming a truth that had been hanging around me anonymously for many long years. p.384
The break-up with Thea and the brief encounter with Stella lead Augie to ponder his life’s meaning. He knows that the ‘moha’ or love that he possesses is infinite, but he yearns for axial lines. He eventually distinguishes these as: truth, love, peace, bounty, usefulness and harmony. He starts rejecting monkey business and decides he’s tired of being borrowed, so he does something volitional and definitive. He marries Stella and joins the navy.
This however does not insulate Augie from the ‘sign of the recruit under which he was born.’ His ship goes down during an attack and he is stranded with a lunatic who tries to inveigle him into schemes to take over the world. He is attacked and bound for refusing. When he gets his chance for revenge, Augie uses it to tend to his deathly ill co-survivor.
He makes it back home to Stella only to discover that she has been ‘double-lifing’ him. Her history is as checkered as Augie’s, only hers haunts her in the form of debts and the memory of a bout with ‘appendicitis’ similar to Mimi’s. Augie only has two false teeth to show for his escapades.
Theirs is a marriage filled with the usual toil of staying together. Augie dreams of a life surrounded by children of his own, but knows life is a never-ending pursuit. The novel closes on this sentiment:
We all refuse to live a disappointed life.
Augie is still involved in shady deals in Paris. No children are on his horizon.