By Charles Matthews

Saturday, January 29, 2011

6. More Die of Heartbreak, by Saul Bellow, pp. 164-191

More Die of Heartbreak (Penguin Classics)From "Here I could pay myself a compliment..." through "... It's like the Yeats poem: 'Many times I died, / Many times I rose again.'"
Kenneth goes to see Vilitzer's son Fishl, who broke with his father fifteen years ago and has been making his way, more or less, on his own. Among his careers was as as an abortionist, using acupuncture to serve his clients. But he was sued by a woman who had a baby after going through the procedure.
You can always count on litigation. A Philadelphia jury has just awarded big damages to a lady who was robbed of her psychic powers after undergoing a CAT scan. After long years as a medium, she was forced to close up shop. Say what you like about America, but few countries have welcomed originality more warmly, and never before has it been a mass phenomenon. 
Kenneth is driven to Fishl's office by his friend Dita Schwartz, who "had an eye on me, that couldn't be denied for one moment," though Kenneth is still holding out for Treckie. The office is in an old, rundown building along with other strange little firms, including a taxidermist and a homeopathic pharmacist. It "shared a corner of the corridor with a men's lavatory." Fishl and Kenneth scrutinize each other: "What he observed was a member of the family; age thirty-five; education foreign; communication powers mediocre-to-low; hearing impaired; not stupid but hampered by singular preoccupations."

When he asks Fishl if he knows the judge who performed the ceremony for Matilda and Benn, and tells him it was Amador Chetnik, Fishl is surprised, but comments: "They might have stopped scheming for at least fifteen minutes, those people. That old Layamon -- I've heard about him. They say he's got more angles than the geometry book." He goes on to explain what we have already learned from Kenneth's report on Benn's lunch with Layamon: that Chetnik is under investigation by the U.S. attorney and that Layamon is using both Chetnik and Benn against Vilitzer. Like Layamon, Fishl says that the reason Kenneth's mother lost her suit against Vilitzer is the incompetence of her lawyer.

Fishl compares the course of his life to Benn's. They knew each other in college, where they tried to get a patent for a lightweight, collapsible bicycle made of bamboo. "Inventing a a bamboo bike was merely his entertainment. Making a killing was my motive." But Benn was blessed with much better luck than Fishl:  "Benn stepped out at a higher level without looking right or left, as if walking out of a fiftieth-story window, and he never got hurt." He goes on to explain that Chetnik is really a pawn in the U.S. attorney's hands in an effort to get at Harold Vilitzer.
"Now, suppose that Chetnik tells the truth about the Electronic Tower case.... You can finish the sentence for me."

"Old Layamon can reopen it, and recover millions for Uncle Benn.... Millions for Benn means million for Matilda. That's why Chetnik was invited to tie the knot."

"Look, chum. I'm the unhappy Edgar, cursed by old Gloucester, his father. That's why I'm in this shit-house office while my brothers are up in pig heaven.... My dad has never been exactly a good guy, but I'm his son and long to save him. Be reconciled. Behind it all is Donovan Stewart.... Governor Stewart, of our own state. In his time he was the U.S. attorney here, and every single successor has been one of the young guys from his original team. Guess for yourself whether or not Stewart has influence on the present incumbent."
So if Chetnik makes an immunity deal for testimony against Vilitzer, he can get, Fishl explains, "A reduced sentence, plus he gets to keep his boodle, and maybe a fast parole deal. Maybe also a cut of what Benn can recover from Dad."

Kenneth assures Fishl that Benn really isn't interested in getting money out of Vilitzer: "he didn't marry for wealth, just for beauty." Fishl is skeptical, but points out that Matilda may be interested in buying a seat on the stock exchange -- he has heard rumors to that effect: "There's a mad search for gifted women." The firm of Fingal Brothers and Hockney is said to be interested in Matilda: "It's a mutual fund. She'd need some training ... but it does them credit to have a lady wizard in an executive spot." When Kenneth reiterates that Benn isn't interested in money, Fishl replies, "Sounds like the lady acquired him.... Would you put it past Dr. Layamon to have had this in mind from way back? After all, Electronic Tower is big stuff. Worth having a shot at that kind of money."

Kenneth protests that Matilda "could have easily married rich," but Fishl suggests that by marrying Benn she could have that and more:
"But a famous professor is always a good catch for a woman who doesn't like vulgar society. The best husband for most women is a composite.... Candid women will tell you, I'd like some of this and some of that -- a little Muhammad Ali for straight sex, some of Kissinger for savvy, Cary Grant for looks, Jack Nicholson for entertainment, plus André Malraux or some Jew for brains. Commonest fantasy there is.... Now she's Mrs. Benno Crader, and she can draw interesting people to her set.... Her father isn't giving away a thing, that's his reputation, and think how thrilling it would be to turn the son-in-law into a millionaire, which he might have done himself if he hadn't been such a creepo." 
Fishl proposes to make contact with his father and find out where he fits into all this. "Above all, tell your uncle not to go to my dad on his own. Warn him against it." Kenneth realizes that "Fishl was setting himself to engage and outmaneuver Dr. Layamon, Judge Amador Chetnik, and even -- in a remote perspective -- Governor Stewart, who allegedly managed all the grand juries in this federal district. Fishl had the nerve to consider himself a match for these stars, this killers' row."

He returns to where Dita had agreed to pick him up. She tells him she had been to see a dermatologist. "She said this lightly, so I didn't guess that she had anything serious in mind (for instance, an attempt to change her looks so that she could rival Treckie).  I was so much involved with Uncle Benn, the riddle of the Roanoke, the grand juries, and the rest of it, that I was slow to understand the signals Dita was giving."

Returning to his office, he finds a note from his uncle, "At home, this P.M." He realizes that this means Benn's old apartment and goes to see him there. Kenneth doesn't tell him everything that he and Fishl talked about. When he suggests that Benn could say no to everything: to moving into the Roanoke and to the maneuvers with Vilitzer, Benn replies, "How can I? I have a certain obligation to Matilda... I can't tell her that she has to lead the dull life of a professor's wife." Kenneth realizes that because of his own relationship with Treckie, he doesn't have much to say that wouldn't sound like hypocrisy.

When he urges Benn to let Fishl handle his father, Benn resists: "I prefer to do it myself, if it has to be done at all.... I can't think of a single thing that Fishl ever succeeded in." Moreover, he has a new perspective on the matter:
"Everything looks different from Parrish Place. I've never lived so close to the center of things. And every time I come near a window, I see that goddam skyscraper. My old life is lying under it -- my mother's kitchen, my father's bookshelves, the mulberry trees. It's like one of those drowned villages in the TVA valley, where you'd have to be a scuba diver to revisit your childhood."
Kenneth is convinced, however, that Fishl is on the right track and that Benn is just playing into the hands of the Layamons. He reflects again on what his uncle "said to the newsman who interviewed him on the dangers of radioactivity from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl -- something like: 'Sorrow at heart killeth full many a man.' And it's a safe guess that there are more deaths from heartbreak than from atomic radiation. Yet there are no mass movements against heartbreak, and no demonstrations against it in the streets." 

But most of all, he hates to see his uncle "used against Harold Vilitzer."

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