By Saul Bellow, 1953
Penguin Books, New York
«Tres cosas hay en la vida/Salud dinero y amor» writes Saul Bellow (390) when Augie March roams the streets of a little town in Mexico where he has arrived with a girl (Thea) and an eagle (Caligula); and hears through a loudspeaker attached to a gramophone the lyrics of that popular song that, in a certain way, summarizes the whole book.
Augie is the son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine and the poster child of the Great Depression. He goes through life–and almost 600 pages–looking for health, money and love. We, the readers, follow him. Maybe because we fall easily for these kinds of characters: lads making all the stupid mistakes we all made.
His numerous family teaches Augie how to go through life. There is a bossy grandma, an almost blind mother, and an older brother: Simon. Simon, whom Augie loves and respects, believes that money and power are the only two dice that Americans need to play the game of life.
In a certain way, The Adventures of Augie March is more than anything else a novel about America. That is the reason why Bellow opens the first page with these words: «I am an American, Chicago born…» The March kids, Simon and Augie, have to learn first how to make money in order to make love later. Thus, a lot of the conflicts that Augie faces, come from an urgency to accommodate his own interests in life (books and adventures)with Simon’s interests (money and respectability.)
We follow Bellow, gladly, through the episodes. He is such a great writer. We go with Augie when he learns to ride a horse and to steal books. We follow Augie to the Navy and to the raft in front of the coasts of Africa where he discusses boredom with his fellow castaway. We discover with him, while he is making love to Stella, that in life «After much making with sense, it is senselessness that you submit to» (426).
However, at the end…What are we left with?: a summary of Augie’s tribulations. There is no big portrait of a generation. The Adventures of Augie March is the work of a genius but it is not a masterpiece. This is no more than the first big novel of a great writer in the process of learning to rein his horses (he was 38 when he wrote it). It is a comfortable trip, but not a memorable one.