By Charles Matthews

Thursday, August 11, 2011

12. The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow (in Novels 1944-1953), pp. 797-838

Chapter XVII

Augie suffers a concussion and loses some teeth, but Bizcocho breaks a leg and has to be shot, which Augie regrets: "he had been whanged at by blasting shotguns, and it had to be me that killed him." When Caligula returns, he is shipped off to her the zoo run by the friend of Thea's father.

After a few weeks of recuperation, Augie suggests that Thea continue her expeditions. "We had one of those arguments of sacrifice; she didn't want to leave me alone and I insisted that she go out, though I didn't want it to be after snakes that she went." So for a while she contents herself with hunting wild pigs, but eventually comes home with a bag of snakes. Augie is through with hunting, though he doesn't tell her that, and suggests that she gets some friends to go with her. Sometimes Talavera accompanies her.

Still plagued by dysentery as well as his injuries, Augie continues reading in the utopia book. The weather also provides some comfort: "Daily there was this sure blue, while the powerful forces of heaven took it easy over the mossy tiles. The blue beauty compensated me considerably, as did the book when I was in the right mood for it." He also talks to Stella, Oliver's girlfriend, over the wall between the house and the hotel, and she tells him that they are moving out of the hotel into the villa owned by the Japanese man, who has to return to Nagasaki. As they are talking, Oliver comes up and takes her away, without speaking to Augie. Moulton tells Augie that Oliver is jealous.

Augie begins hanging out more with the exiles.
As the house was void, as there were more snakes on the porch, as I wasn't strong enough to go with Thea but wasn't too weak to be restless, as I was horse-shy and hunt-shy, as I was in reality in a fork about my course of life, I stalled and delayed. Besides, I was intrigued with Moulton and Iggy and others of the international colony.
He spends much of his time with Iggy, while he is writing his tales about men on Mars, and at the bar playing poker, "which I had learned in a great school, Einhorn's poolroom."

The tension with Thea continues to grow, partly because Augie loathes her snake collection: "they had parasites that got between the scales, and they had to be dusted or washed with mercurochrome; some had to be given inhalations of eucalyptus oil for their lung ailments, for snakes get tuberculosis." So even after he regains his health, Augie continues to claim that he's not strong enough to go out hunting with her. For her part, she is disgusted by the set Augie hangs out with. "I think they must make you feel ashamed of me, ever since Caligula. They make fun of me." Augie denies it.

He has become hooked by poker. "I was ahead and couldn't quit." His pockets are full of his winnings in various currencies. "I didn't know exactly what I had. But I did have money. It was mine, not Smitty's." When the divorce papers come, he asks Thea to marry him, but "she simply shook her head." Augie suspects that it's because of their differing social status: "I remembered how once when afraid of pregnancy she let escape the fear of explaining to her family that I was the father."

Leon Trotsky
One day he sees several cars drive up in front of the cathedral, and watches as bodyguards emerge from the cars. Finally the man they are protecting emerges. "As I looked at him I decided with a real jolt that this must be Trotsky, down from Mexico City, the great Russian exile." With him are men with briefcases: "members of radical organizations I used to know in Chicago always had briefcases like those." And then he recognizes one of the bodyguards as "my old friend Sylvester, the one-time owner of the Star Theater, the engineering student from Armour Tech, the ex-husband of Mimi Villar's [sic] sister, the former subway employee." He calls out to Sylvester, and they talk for a while. He asks for an introduction to Trotsky, but Sylvester puts him off, saying, "When you get up to the city phone me. I'd like to see you; we'll have a beer." He also mentions that Mimi's ex-lover, Frazer, is one of Trotsky's secretaries.

Oliver is preparing to have a big party when he finally moves into the villa owned by the Japanese man, but before that a Treasury agent shows up in town, and rumor has it that Oliver is in some sort of trouble. He feigns indifference, but it is evident to Augie that Stella is afraid of what might happen. She signals to Augie that she'd like to talk to him about it, but "Oliver watched her very closely." Oliver gets into more trouble when he discovers that Louie Fu, the owner of the Chinese restaurant where they often gather, is pouring the leftovers from orange soda bottles into a single bottle at the end of the day. "Oliver caught him and punched him in the face," and is hauled into jail for it. The city magistrate is not sympathetic to Oliver's defense "that what Louie had done was very dangerous because of the amoeba." The magistrate doesn't want word getting out that dysentery is rife in the town, so he gives Oliver a heavy fine. Stella, who is present in the court, "appealed to me with her large disturbed eyes to see for myself what she was up against."

When Thea hears about all of this, she suggests that they leave town and get away from the exiles until the summer tourist season is over. She wants to drive down to Chilpanzingo, "in the hot country." He tries to hedge: "Well, I think I may feel up to it soon." But Thea is determined to get away, and blames his slow recovery on his drinking. "You never touched a drop before you got down here." So he gives in: "I will go to Chilpanzingo with you. I'd rather be with you than with anyone in the world." But he wonders what he will do there.

Chapter XVIII

Before they can depart, however, Oliver's housewarming party takes place. Augie is eager to go, but he knows she doesn't. He rationalizes his forcing her to attend by thinking, "If I can stand her snakes, she can take this for one evening." But by the time they arrive at the party it's evident that it is turning into something of a wild rout, with guests passed out and empty tequila bottles floating in the fishpond. "Thea wanted to leave immediately, but as she began to say so I saw Stella by an orange tree. She made me a small sign, and I had to go and talk to her." Then Moulton comes up and asks Thea to dance, and although he knows she loathes Moulton and is angry with him for forcing her to come to the party, he leaves her on the dance floor and goes to find Stella. "But it did occur to me that the last time I had been called aside like this for a discussion apart was with Sophie Geratis, when we had fallen into each other's arms."

Stella tells him that the magazine Oliver edits had been bought with money from the Italian government, and the man who owns it has been arrested. "All the important things that were printed were planned in Rome." That's why the government agent has come for Oliver.  Stella doesn't know much more than that, except that Oliver wants to run away, perhaps to South America. Augie comments, "That poor fool! He thinks he's a big-league fugitive. You'll have to get away from him." He offers to lend her the money to leave, but she says she was hoping he'd take her to Mexico City himself. He tells her he can't do that, but that he can get her out of town.

He arranges to meet her with the station wagon, but when he goes to find Thea he finds she has left. Iggy tells him, "She was in quite a mood.... We looked for you. then she said to tell you she was pulling out for Chilpanzingo first thing in the morning. She was all nervous and shaking." So Augie goes to where the station wagon is parked and waits for Stella. The battery is low because the station wagon hasn't been driven for a while, and while he is trying to start it with a hand crank Thea shows up. He tells her that he is taking Stella to safety because "Oliver went crazy and tried to kill her today." Thea isn't buying it: "I've seen you with women. I know what you look like when a handsome woman or even not such a handsome woman passes by." They argue, and she suggests that they take Stella to their house to protect her. He digs in his heels but suggests that she come along. "I'll drive her up to Cuernavaca and we'll be back in a few hours." When she refuses, he starts the car and leaves.

The road to Cuernavaca is steep and dark. There is a detour when they get out of town, but the sign pointing the way has been tampered with and he can't tell which direction to take. He decides to go to the left, but the road gets worse and worse, and when he tries to back up to turn around, the engine dies. He gets out and discovers that they are on the edge of a steep mountain. There is no one around to help, and the crank no longer works to start the station wagon, so they take canvas and blankets out of the car and bed down for the night. Both of them give in to their impulses and make love. Augie reflects, "Thea foresaw that I'd do this. It annoyed me all the more with her, as though if she hadn't made the prediction it wouldn't have happened."

In the morning some men help them get the car turned around and when it starts to roll downhill the engine starts. They drive to Cuernavaca where he hires a car to take her to Mexico City and gives her all his money. She vows to pay him back, but he doesn't believe her.
Waiting in the sun for the taxi, we were at the side of the market, by the flowers, and stood where the stones were slippery from the cast-off blooms, just the light greasiness of the flowers underfoot. Facing us were the butchers' stalls, and on the hooks the tripes and lights and the carcasses were slung, on which the flies gave out nearly a roar and bounded like the first drops of cloudburst on a red wall. Under a chopping block squatted a naked kid and he slowly made a strange color of defecation. We went slowly around the broad steel gallery, the glass roof rising over the packed tinware, peppers, beef, bananas, pork, orchids, baskets, and this flash, rage, the chitin, electric loud tissue sound of fond love, the wild loving hum of the bluebottles and green. As if a huge spool were revolving that caught up all the threads from the sunlight.
Stella gives him the name of her theatrical agent who, she says, will always know where to reach her.

He returns to Thea and finds her ready to leave for Chilpanzingo. He tries to tell her about the car breaking down in the mountains, but she isn't interested in hearing it. He bitterly replies, "It wouldn't be so hard to tell you after what you've told me about yourself, about the Navy man and so forth, while you were married to Smitty. You're quite a few up on me." They reach an impasse on this subject, and she tells him that Oliver was picked up by the police at about the time he was leaving with Stella. Augie admits, "I guess I shouldn't have been in such a hurry. But I was afraid he'd drag her with him. Because he did have a gun, and he hit Louie Fu, he was getting to be violent and I though he'd force her --" But Thea just scoffs at the idea of Oliver forcing anyone, and suggests that Augie has been played by Stella.

Augie then delivers a cruel blow to Thea by revealing that he was just playing along with her on her hunting ambitions. She replies, "What, were you jut being indulgent with me? About the eagle? That didn't mean anything to you? All along you thought I was only fantastic?" He tries to back down and claim that he never thought she was eccentric in her enthusiasms, but the damage has been done.
"I must be a little crazy." She said it in a husky and quite tone. "I must be, I have to admit. But I thought if I could get through to one other person I could get through to more. So people wouldn't tire me, and so I wouldn't be afraid of them.... I was so happy to find you.... I'm sorry you're here now. You're not special. You're like everybody else. You get tired easily. I don't want to see you any more." 
She tells him that she is going to Chilpanzingo without him. And when she leaves, he goes berserk, demolishing the furniture and curtains and pictures in the house, and destroying the snake cages, watching "the panic of the monsters as they flowed and fled, surged for cover." He puts his things into a valise and goes into the village where, when he meets Moulton and Iggy, he curses them. But he follows Iggy into the market where, when Iggy sees his suitcase, he realizes what Augie has done. Augie bursts into tears.

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