March 14th, 2010

The Adventures of Augie March

The Adventures of Augie March is the third book in my current Saul Bellow kick. Like Seize The Day and Herzog, I first read Augie’s Adventures when I was high school. It is a Chicago book, more of a Chicago book than Herzog, possibly the best Chicago book Bellow wrote. The book was published in 1953 and won the National Book Award.

Lilac buds press on

Augie March and Huckleberry Finn

Augie’s adventures beg to be compared to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which was published sixty five years earlier in 1885. Both are picaresque novels, both are unequivocally American. Augie’s adventures are a chronicle of Augie’s loves and occupations as he grows from mannish boy to boyish man. Huck’s adventures are a float down the river to escape from Huck’s Pa and and emancipate Jim.

For Huck Finn,  the escape from Pa and emancipation of Jim are eventually resolved. The resolutions are not tidy– they occur off the stage, not from the action of the novel itself. Hemingway, among others, criticized the closing chapters of Huck Finn for descending into burlesque. I also feel some disappointment with the end, but I am crudly delighted with the Tom Sawyer camp town humor. However, I am profoundly disturbed by the deus ex machina grinding away in the background, resolving the plot that structures the great theme of freedom that flows through the heart of the novel. The end disappoints me because Widow Watson’s deathbed emancipation of Jim and Pa’s death are insignificant on the mighty river where Huck and Jim are condemned to float.

Chicago and the River

The Adventures of Augie March has scant plot and no river. Bellow sets out to tell us something about the life of an immigrant family on the west side of Chicago. Augie March is a long book (600 plus pages of compact print), that does not resolve itself. Saul Bellow repeatedly challenges the reader to examine the meaning of success for Augie as he experiences amazing adventures, in hobo camps, hunting giant lizards with an eagle, with Trotsky’s cadre in Mexico, but Augie at the end of the book is the same amiable, impressionable boy he was in the beginning. Although the reader has been challenged, the book is content to repeatedly raise the issue without pronouncing judgment.

For many, this is unsatisfying, perhaps more unsatisfying than the close of Huck Finn, which at least delivers a tidy package, but the incompleteness of the endings for both Huck and Augie comes from the peculiar resistance to endings in American life. Everything in America is in preparation for a new frontier and the next deal of the cards; there is no end to Huck’s and Augie’s adventures because the adventures both depend on the next deal. Huck looks at freedom as emancipation from Pa, from the Widow Watson, and Jim’s emancipation from the institution of slavery, but Huck’s emancipations do not resolve the problem of freedom, they only prove its fragility as Huck observes the king and the duke put Jim back in chains, but the cards are redealt and the king and the duke are tarred and feathered themselves. Immigration emancipated Augie from the empires of Europe, but Augie finds freedom elusive, hard to define and understand, and– most of all– impermanent. There is no satisfactory ending.

The Secret of Life

Reading The Adventures of Augie March is an immense pleasure. Einhorn the crippled real estate wheeler-dealer, Padilla the mathematician-book thief, and Thea the eagle trainer all are memorable and entertaining. Even minor players like Clem Tambow, Ten Properties, and Dingbat stick in the mind and command smiles and pangs. And, most of all, Augie is likable, intriguing– much like old Huck. You just might wring the secret of life out of either one of them if you read their book one more time.

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