Sunday, December 02, 2012

The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

Preparing to reread Saul Bellow's breakthrough third novel recently, I was, to be honest, afraid of what I was going to find. The novel had meant a great deal to me when I was about 20. But it turned out to be no disappointment. It gets a little silly, or trite, toward the end, and it lacked a lot of the majesty I remember finding in it. The vistas of American landscape did not inspire the same awe of yore, not to mention what was with the Mexico stuff? But I might have even appreciated a little more the episodic structure, which is wonderfully rambling and one of the best parts about it. Basically, I still think the best point is the voice of its narrator, Augie March himself, clearly entwined with vagaries such as the structure. That voice is so clear and forthright, in error and in vindication alike, with a charming "think out loud" earnestness that really carries everything. The nascent postmodernistic deconstruction of Mark Twain works only insofar as what insight it provides into Augie March, the self-conscious writer of the narrative. It feels more like his idea than Bellow's to even go down the trail, which is admittedly a pretty good trick on Bellow's part. There's something more like Dreiser or Richard Wright—or maybe it's Chicago—something naturalistic about the way the characters in Augie's life, such as his brother, simply come and go, reappearing randomly in various circumstances that usually feel like the way things really happen, and sad, all mixed up with love and confusion, driven by nothing that even makes sense. When I think about the books I liked most when I was about 20—big, sweeping interior pieces like Joseph Heller's Something Happened, or the first two volumes of Frederick Exley's memoir, or even John Dos Passos's massive USA trilogy within its vast multiplicity of characters—it makes sense that I would go for Augie March. The real surprise, as I say, was how well it held up more than 30 years later.

In case it's not at the library.

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