I just finished listening to The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow, and it has vaulted onto the short list of my favorite books. I loved it. Augie March is a fatherless Jewish kid who grows up in Chicago in the 1920s, lives through the Depression and World War II, has a few adventures and meets lots of people. There is a plot but it doesn't matter much. The wonder of it is the people; most of the book is a series of character sketches and vignettes. Augie is not a very strong character, and other people keep recruiting him into their schemes. He goes along with their projects, but only so far. Since he never really signs on, he is involved enough to know the story but distant enough to tell it dispassionately. The parade of people and lives is astonishing, every sort of character from crooks, cops and the Polish milkman to a paraplegic real estate tycoon, an Armenian lawyer who holds court in a Turkish bath on the 45th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper, and an heiress who trains eagles to hunt giant iguanas. All are convincing and most are fascinating. Because of the unending stream of characters and stories, the book never drags even when it is most intellectual. No one but Augie hangs around long enough to get boring, and since he is always getting involved in new schemes and meeting new people, he is never boring, either. I think this is the most consistently entertaining highbrow novel I have ever read.
The first part of the book is the best. Set in a Chicago neighborhood of Jewish and Polish immigrants much like the one where Bellow himself spent his teenage years, it is a brilliant re-imagining of a time and place. It is real enough to be believable but probably ten times as interesting as any such place ever was. It lives and breathes and dances off the page. It reminded me a lot of those Yiddish writers from the early twentieth century who celebrated life in Jewish towns and neighborhoods. So I checked Bellow's biography, and sure enough he translated one of those books, Isaac Bashevis Singer's Gimpel the Fool, at the same time he was writing Augie March (1953). Bellow is better, though -- he had more range and less sentimentality, and at least in English he was a much better crafter of sentences.
The biggest complaint some people have about the book is the confusing quality of the narration. It's a first-person story, and Augie's voice is a mix of Chicago wise-guy and academic philosopher. He spent much of his adolescence hanging around a South Side pool hall frequented by small time crooks, and he knows their lingo and their concerns, but when he describes them he brings up Odysseus, Aristotle, Alfred the Great, Cromwell, Baudelaire, Freud, physics, and on and on. Ron Rosembaum complained of Bellow, "there's the street-wise Windy City wiseguy and then-as if to show off that the wiseguy has Wisdom-there are the undigested chunks of arcane, not entirely impressive, philosophic thought and speculation. Just to make sure you know his novels have intellectual heft." The dissonance was probably made a little worse for me by Tom Parker's wonderful reading, since he gives Augie March a perfect Chicago wise guy voice.
I got used to this, though, and it didn't bother me. After all, Saul Bellow had a career something like Augie March's, rising from Chicago's immigrant neighborhoods to the intellectual elite. Yes, it is improbable that anyone could meet as many fascinating people as Augie March, or have so many deep conversations with near strangers, or think such intellectual thoughts in a pool hall, but it is a novel. And a really great one.
This is the first work I have read from Bellow's early period. Compared to his later novels it is perhaps rougher, less well structured, and less thematically coherent. But it explodes with life in a raw way that more than makes up for its formal shortcomings, and it lacks the sometimes dreary condescension of the later books. Augie March is much less judgmental than Bellow's later narrators. He is the perfect companion, tolerating everyone, and if he sees people's faults he also understands their sorrows and admires their victories. Sometimes he gets angry and hurls abuse, but always he is as much in the wrong as the object of his anger. His view of women has something in common with Bellow's mature distaste -- for example, he meets at least two women who are obsessed with love and focus so much energy on it that they have little left for politics or intellectual life. But on the whole the women in this book are as diverse and vital as the men.
I think The Adventures of Augie March is the best American novel I have ever read.