Bellow's stories exist against a background. Often (as in Herzog or Mr. Sammler's Planet) it's a densely textured background of ideas, theories of history, or the like. In Henderson the Rain King it's a background of a richly imagined but wholly fictive Africa. And in Augie March the initial background is Chicago, as richly imagined but not perhaps as fictive as Henderson's Africa -- the Chicago of the Twenties and the Depression Thirties, the Chicago of Bellow's childhood and youth.
Augie introduces us to the Marches, such as they are. His mother, he tells us, is "simple-minded." It's not entirely clear what that means, but we gather that she is generally ineffectual in most areas of life. His younger brother, Georgie, "was born an idiot" -- and that seems to be in the traditional 19th- and early 20th-century sense of the word: mentally retarded. Whether this has some connection with his mother's "simple-mindedness" isn't clear, but Augie and his older brother, Simon, seem to be normally, even highly intelligent. Their father isn't in the picture at all, though "sometimes money from my father came and sometimes it didn't."
The dominant figure in the household, then, is Grandma Lausch, who isn't really their grandmother, or even a relative, but a boarder who coddles an aged poodle named Winnie, "a pursy old overfed dog." Augie tells us, "Mama was Winnie's servant, as she was Grandma Lausch's." Grandma helps Mama manage the various social agencies that supply their income, being "one of those Machiavellis of small street and neighborhood that my young years were full of." Augie, who "loved a piece of strategy," becomes Grandma's apt pupil.
Grandma is "the widow of a powerful Odessa businessman," and she is supported by two sons, one in Cincinnati and one in Racine, Wisconsin. Her daughters-in-law don't want her, but Grandma is happy to live with the Marches "because for so many years she was used to direct a house, to command, to govern, to manage, scheme, devise, and intrigue." Augie claims to remember his father, but really only imagines him from what little he has been able to glean from Simon's recollections and other mentions of him by their mother. His leaving them left a vacuum that Grandma was destined to fill: "I don't know how [Mama] made out before, when we were alone after the desertion, but Grandma came and put a regulating hand on the family life."
Grandma also supervises the boys' education, buying a set of Encyclopedia Americana from the junk dealer and making Augie and Simon read it. She sends Augie to the library for her own books, in Russian, teaching him the Russian alphabet so he can read the titles. "Once a year she read Anna Karenina and Eugene Onegin," and she scolds Augie if he brings her anything that isn't a novel. She raises the boys on "kitchen religion," her idiosyncratic version of Judaism, for "although she never went to the synagogue, ate bread on Passover, sent Mama to the pork butcher where meat was cheaper, loved canned lobster and other forbidden food, she was not an atheist and free thinker." Sometimes the boys are "chased, stoned, bitten, and beat up for Christ-killers" by the Polish Christian boys in the neighborhood, but Augie "never had any special grief from it, or brooded, being by and large too larky and boisterous to take it to heart."
At twelve, Augie tells us, he was "farmed out" for summer work, though even before that he had distributed handbills for a theater owned by a friend of Grandma's, a man named Sylvester. It was Sylvester's son, "a young fellow whom money or family anxiety always seemed to keep in a sweat," who ran things, and who warned Augie, "I've had kids who shoved the bills down the sewer. Too bad if I ever find out about it, and I have ways to check up." So naturally, Augie says, "I felt I couldn't do less either and watched for my chance."
The next summer, Simon went to work as a bellhop in Michigan, and Augie was sent to help his cousin Hyman Coblin with his newspaper route. He had to live with the Coblins because they were more than half an hour away on the streetcar. He took the room formerly used by Howard Coblin, who had run away to join the Marines and fight the rebels in Nicaragua, the source of continual mourning by his mother, Anna. The Coblins had a daughter, Friedl, whom Anna was convinced Augie should marry when they were older: "Hear, Owgie, you'll be my son, my daughter's husband, mein kind." This also meant that Augie would be a kind of replacement for Howard.
Also part of the Coblins' household is Anna's brother, known as "Five Properties," a huge dairyman who during World War I had driven "wagons of Russian and German corpses to burial on Polish farms." He seems to have gotten his nickname from his resemblance to a character in the Yiddish theater: "the fat swagger of the suitor everybody hated: 'Five prope'ties. Plente money.'"
Augie likes the Coblins, who were generous to him. But their house is filthy, as he realizes when he goes home on the half-days he has off. He is "troubled ... to see how absent Simon and I could be from the house and how smooth it went without us." Grandma Lausch makes fun of the Coblins, but she is also engaged in trying to find an American girl for Five Properties to marry, so that she can collect a matchmaker's fee.
Augie gets up with Coblin between four and five in the morning to meet the newspaper delivery trucks and to get the papers ready for the delivery boys, "Coblin and his older hands taking the steep back porches where you needed the knack of pitching the paper up to the third floor over the beams and clotheslines." On Saturdays, Coblin would give money to take Friedl to the movies. Anna observed the holy days, and tries to give Augie some religious instruction.
Grandma took it on herself to help Simon and Augie make something of themselves, even without the advantages of "her own sons with the German governesses and tutors and gymnasium uniforms they had had." She resents the fact that her sons "weren't so enormously grateful for all she had done. Perhaps she worked so hard over Simon and me to show them what she could do even with such handicaps as ours."
Simon had a distinguished record here. President of the Loyal League, he wore the shield on his sweater, and was valedictorian. I didn't have his singleness of purpose but was more diffuse, and anybody who offered entertainment could get me to skip and do the alleys for junk, or prowl the boathouse and climb in the ironwork under the lagoon bridge. My marks showed it, and the old lady would give me a going-over when I brought them in, calling me "cat-head" and, in her French, "meshant," threatening that I'd go to work at fourteen.She disapproved of his friends, and meted out punishments for his constant offenses. "And I wasn't unaffected by her nagging. I didn't want to go out at fourteen with a certificate and work in the packing plants, so occasionally, for a spell, I'd pick up; I'd do my homework and almost climb out of my seat, wagging my arm with zeal to answer questions." He skipped a grade when Simon graduated and was valedictorian, so she told him, "I want to see you up there next year." But he "wasn't cut out for it."
Simon begins to backslide after he graduated, and when he comes back from waiting tables in the summer with very little money, he is scolded for it. He and Augie go to work together unpacking crates in the cellar of Woolworth's, and then Simon gets a job working a concession stand in the railroad station. He also rebels against Grandma, telling Augie, "She's really nothing to us, you know that, don't you?" He begins reporting on the celebrities he sees in the train station, with the sense that he might be their equal one day. Finally, after months of pressure from Grandma, Simon finds Augie a job in the train station, too, but he is fired because he can't make his cash come out evenly. He complains that he was shortchanged by people who grabbed a paper and flung down the money, and he couldn't leave the stand to chase them down. Simon asks, "You couldn't get that money out of somebody else's change, could you?" Augie complains that Simon never taught him that trick. And Simon doesn't stand up for Augie when Grandma yells at him.
Augie looks for another job with his friend Jimmy Klein, of whom Grandma disapproves. Jimmy "was highly sociable and spirited, slight and dark-faced, narrow-eyed, witty-looking, largely willing to be honest but not overstrapped by conscience -- the old lady was right about that." They cut school frequently to go to the theater, and are often seen by Coblin in the theater lines, but he doesn't tell Grandma.
Jimmy's uncle Tambow is "a pretty big wheel in Republican ward politics," and when he comes across a lot of cheap goods -- "like lost articles in the post office or distressed goods in a bankruptcy" -- he sets up a stand on Milwaukee Avenue and has Jimmy and Augie run it. He would "put in a fix with the cops so we wouldn't be bothered."