By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

10. The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow (in Novels 1944-1953), pp. 739-757

Chapter XIV

Augie gives up his union-organizing job for Thea: "I just didn't have the calling to be a union man or in politics.... It wasn't what I was meant to be." But was he meant to be as head-over-heels in love with Thea as he is?

They fall into a passionate embrace in the elevator of her apartment house. "Not noticing the blood-stiffened shirt, she passed her hand over my chest and up to my shoulders. I opened her housecoat on her breasts. I was not in control of my head, nearly blind." But Augie isn't the only blind one. When she finally notices the bruises from his beating, "the specific reason for my being beaten didn't interest her and she wasn't very curious about it."
Yes, she had heard of the big union drive, but that I was in it was sort of irrelevant. For while I was not with her, where I was intended to be, it didn't make much difference where I was. All intervening things and interferences were of the same unreal kind and belonged -- out there. 
And for the time being, Augie is the same way. "Suitcases were standing around the bed, but I didn't ask about them." He is only mildly surprised that she keeps money, cash and checks, in the refrigerator, "mixed up with rotting salad leaves and lying with saucers of bacon grease, which she didn't like to throw away." 

Gradually this blind infatuation -- "I loved her to the degree that anything she chanced to do was welcome to me" -- begins to allow reality to creep in. He learns that she is married, but is going to Mexico to get a divorce. Her husband is older and very wealthy. Esther, too, has married a rich man, a lawyer in Washington, D.C. Thea assumes that Augie will go with her to Mexico, and for the moment at least he is not inclined to refuse anything she asks of him.

He calls Grammick at the union offices. "He said the union guy and his boys were really gunning for me, to lay low," and although he is surprised when Augie tells him he's quitting, he admits that the conflict between the unions was "a lousy deal" to get involved in.

Thea starts outfitting Augie for the trip. "She wanted me to look like a sportsman," and buys expensive things for him, squandering money everywhere. Augie notices her foolish extravagances, but "It didn't matter. I let a lot of things go past.... I was never before so taken up with a single human being." He follows Thea's lead in everything, though occasionally is aware that he is "abandoning some mighty old protections."
Here Thea appeared with her money, her decided mind set on love and great circumstances, her car, her guns and Leicas and boots, her talk about Mexico, her ideas. One of the chiefest of these ideas being that there must be something better than what people call reality.
He recognizes "that she was used to having what she wanted, including me." Augie opens up to her about everything, but he sees that "she was in many ways suspicious." But she doesn't open up as completely.
She had several times tried to tell me what we would do in Mexico obtaining her divorce, and she seemed to assume that I knew intuitively what her plans were. I frequently was confused. I couldn't tell whether she owned or rented a house in the town of Acatla, and what she described of the country didn't make me altogether happy. It sounded like a risky place when she talked of the mountains, hunting, diseases, robbery, and the dangerous population.
They are, he learns, going to go hunting with eagles. "She had gotten the idea for this hunt from reading articles by Dan and Julie Mannix, who actually had gone to Taxco some years before with a trained bald eagle and used the bird to catch iguanas." They are going to stop on the way at a place near Texarkana where a man raises eagles. The iguanas are for a friend of her father's who has a private zoo. "As this information came out, which I didn't know how seriously to take, I thought this was like me and my life -- I could not find myself in love without it should have some peculiarity." (The vernacular touch of "without it should have" is a deft reminder that Augie is mostly self-taught.)

Their trip is delayed while Thea waits to hear from her husband's lawyer, and she spends part of the time giving Augie riding lessons. She also shows him an album of family photographs, including some of her husband, Smitty. Augie is struck by these pictures of a wealthy family at play, and finds it difficult to imagine himself fitting in with them. "And then the hunting troubled me. I didn't know how earnestly I was to take it."

He takes his uncertainties to Mimi, who is not exactly sympathetic, especially when he tells her about the eagle. "What, what, what! You have an eagle to pick up in Arkansas? Don't you mean a buzzard?" He finds that Arthur has taken over his room, and has found the Harvard Classics under the bed. He asks to be allowed to take care of them, and since they have Arthur's father's name in them, Augie agrees. Arthur is undergoing treatment for his venereal disease. Augie also goes to see his mother, who asks if Thea is "a rich girl, like Simon's wife?" He wonders if she thinks he's still involved with Lucy Magnus, and assures her that she has nothing to do with Charlotte's family. She tells him that Simon has a new Cadillac. "Oh, it's wonderful! He's going to be a very rich fellow." Augie doesn't grudge him that, "But I have to admit that I couldn't keep down the satisfaction of the thought that Thea was an heiress too."

He also goes to see Padilla, who "wasn't so terribly pleased that I was bound for Mexico, and he warned me not to go near Chihuahua, his province." Padilla gives Augie the name of a cousin in Mexico City, but isn't sure whether "he'll rob you or help." In fact, everyone gives him some sort of warning about the trip, so that he finally asks Thea, "Do we have to go to Mexico?" She could get divorced in Reno, he points out. But she tells him that she's already arranged with Smitty's lawyer to get divorced there.

Then she adds that there's another reason for going to Mexico: "I won't have much money after the divorce." He's astonished to hear this, and she explains that "our part of the family never did have much money." It's her uncle who has the money. And she adds that she caused a scandal by running away from her husband with a naval cadet who looked just like Augie. "I was thinking of you all the time, but you weren't there." So her uncle has put her "on probation." "And that's one more reason why I have to go to Mexico, to make some money." In addition to the lizard-catching eagles, she wants to make movies about hunting and "sell articles about it to the National Geographic."

Augie is floored. What about all the money they're spending now, he asks. She explains that "Smitty pays all the expenses until the divorce is final." Despite all these revelations, Augie realizes "that I could no more stay here and let her go than I could put out my eyes" -- and that Thea knows it. She assures him that it will all be okay, but he is uncertain enough about the hunting part of it that he goes to the zoo to see their eagle. "How could anybody ever tame him? And also, We'd better make speed for Texarkana and start with this thing before it grows too big."

And so they set out on their journey.

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