Unlike Holden Caulfield, Augie March is very much into that David Copperfield kind of crap. "All the influences were lined up waiting for me. I was born, and they were there to form me, which is why I tell you more of them than of myself." It's the Dickensian color and variety of the secondary and minor characters that give Bellow's novel its special texture. (Dickens would certainly have named a character Five Properties, if he'd thought of it.)
As for Augie, he has, as he says, "a very weak sense of consequences," which allows him to overlook Grandma Lausch's warning, "The Klein boy is going to get you into trouble. He has thievish eyes. The truth now -- is he a crook or not? Aha! He doesn't answer." Pushed into answering, Augie says "No," even though "at this very time we were engaged in a swindle in Deever's neighborhood department store." Augie and Jimmy Klein are high school sophomores working as Santa Claus's elves in the toy department. They are skimming quarters from the change people give them for the Christmas surprise packages they sell out of a barrel for two bits apiece. They're convinced that the cashier to whom they give the money won't notice what they're doing, and they have saved up enough to buy presents for their families and friends. Of course they get caught. "There wasn't just threatening and scolding this time but absolute abasement." They have to return the presents and repay the money, and Jimmy gets a beating from his father.
Then Augie falls in love with Hilda Novinson, the daughter of a tailor, and gets ribbed by Jimmy's cousin, Clem Tambow, who tells him, "Let me take you once to a whore, and you'll forget all about her." It doesn't help matters that he's out of work during the time when he'd like to be taking Hilda out on dates, but he finally gets a job in a flower shop, making deliveries to funerals and wakes for a man named Bluegren, who is chummy with Chicago's gangsters.
Meanwhile, Grandma is gearing up for a coup: persuading Augie's mother that his brother Georgie should be institutionalized. "Sooner or later something had to be done about him, said the old woman. He was hard to manage, now he was growing so tall and beginning to look like a man." She awakens the fear that a post-pubescent Georgie might take liberties with a girl, and the police would be called in. She brings out her old criticism of the Marches: "we refused to see where our mistakes were leading, and then the terrible consequences came on." Augie and his mother argue against her to no avail.
She didn't have to win Simon over; in this one matter of Georgie he was with her. He wasn't openly going to join her because of his feeling for Mama, but when we were alone in the bedroom he let me make all my accusations and arguments, waiting me out with a superior face, taking it easy full-length on the sheets -- sewed together of Ceresota sacks -- and when he thought I was ready to hear him he said, "Tell it to the Marines, kid."Simon and Augie have gone separate ways after he lost his job at the train station and then got busted for skimming at Deever's. He doesn't much like Jimmy, and he makes fun of Augie's infatuation with Hilda: "Friedl Coblin'll be better looking than that when she grows up. She'll probably have tits anyhow." So Augie is not surprised that Simon takes Grandma's side against him. So the matter with Georgie is settled, and he is sent to the institution for retarded children.
After that we had a diminished family life, as though it were care of Georgie that had been the main basis of household union and now everything was disturbed. We looked in different directions, and the old woman had outsmarted herself. Well, we mere a disappointment to her too. Maybe she had started out dreaming she might have a prodigy in one of us to manage to fame.As a symbol of Grandma's decreasing control over the March household, her old dog Winnie dies in May of that year.
In his junior year of high school, Augie goes to work for William Einhorn, a wealthy quadriplegic and "the first superior man I knew." The Einhorns "were the most important real-estate brokers in the district and owned and controlled much property, including the enormous forty-flat building where they lived." His father, known as the Commissioner, is the head of the business. William has a younger brother "who was called Shep or, by his poolroom friends, Dingbat.... I couldn't exactly say how he came by the name." Dingbat had run the poolroom, Einhorn's Billiards, but was replaced when the Commissioner found him "unreliable."
Seeing Augie carry a glass on a tray for the Einhorns, Simon said, "So this is your job! You're the butler."
But it was only one function of hundreds, some even more menial, more personal, others calling for cleverness and training -- secretary, deputy, agent, companion. He was a man who needed someone beside him continually; the things that had to be done for him made him autocratic.Occasionally Augie is called on to dress Einhorn or to take him to the toilet. He reads the newspaper to him and maintains files of clippings and correspondence.
William's son, Arthur, is a sophomore at the University of Illinois. "Einhorn had a teaching turn similar to Grandma Lausch's, both believing they could show what could be done with the world, where it gave or resisted, where you could be confident and run or where you could only feel you way and were forced to blunder. And with his son at the university I was the only student he had to hand." Augie learns about Einhorn's "numerous small swindles," such as "ordering things on approval he didn't intend to pay for" and using fictitious names. He sent away for anything offered for free and kept it all. He entered contests and occasionally won, and has a project "to put out an edition of Shakespeare indexed as the Gideon Bible was: Slack Business, Bad Weather, Difficult Customers, Stuck with Big Inventory of Last Year's Models, Woman, Marriage, Partners." He also published "a mimeographed paper called 'The Shut-In,'" full of inspirational and sentimental matter filched from various sources.
"I was a listener by upbringing," Augie says, and Einhorn's peculiar erudition fills his head. Yet he also maintains a distance from the family, though he sometimes gets a suspicious look from Mrs Einhorn. "I wasn't trying to worm my way into any legacy and get any part of what was coming to her elegant and cultivated son Arthur." Einhorn, too, assures him, "I don't know what brain power you've got; you're too frisky yet, and even if you turn out to be smart you'll never be in the class of my son Arthur." Augie feels a little "stung" by the comparison. But he feels honored to be accepted by Einhorn, whose brother and wife both regard him as a wizard.
Mrs. Einhorn turns something of a blind eye to her husband's dalliance with other women -- apparently his paralysis is not complete -- such as a family employee, Lottie Fewter. Einhorn says that in this way he is like his father, the Commissioner, who "petted and admired all women and put his hands wherever he liked." He tells Augie that he used to believe he would either overcome his disability or commit suicide, but now he just manages to live with it most of the time:
"You can get along twenty-nine days with your trouble, but there's always that thirtieth day when goddammit you can't, when you feel like the stinking fly in the first cold snap, when you look about and think you're the Old Man of the Sea locked around Sinbad's neck, and why should anybody carry a piece of envious human junk? If society had any sense they'd give me euthanasia or leave me the way the Eskimos do their old folks in an igloo with food for two days."Meanwhile, Augie is putting the moves on Lottie "in the kitchen while she was ironing.... We soon were kissing and feeling; she now held off my hands and now led them inside her dress, alleging instruction, boisterous that I was still cherry, and at last, from kindness, she one day said that if I'd come back in the evening I could take her home." But then she sends word that she's changed her mind, and Jimmy's cousin Clem reminds Augie that she belongs to his boss -- and a couple of other guys. And that Augie doesn't have any money.
Augie begins hanging out with Dingbat, going to some pretty rough places where people like to pick fights on the slightest provocation. Dingbat rescues Augie from some threatened encounters, which is fine with Augie, who has no interest in putting up a fight. Einhorn himself comments on the general lawlessness of Chicago:
"But there is some kind of advantage in the roughness of a place like Chicago, of not having any illusions either. Whereas in all the great capitals of the world there's some reason to think humanity is very different. All that ancient culture and those beautiful works of art right out in public, by Michelangelo and Christopher Wren, and those ceremonies, like trooping the color at the Horse Guards' parade or burying a great man in the Pantheon over in Paris. You see those marvelous things and you think that everything savage belongs to the past. So you think. And then you have another think, and you see that after they rescued women from the coal mines, or pulled down the Bastille and got rid of Star Chambers and lettres de cachet, ran out the Jesuits, increased education, and built hospitals and spread courtesy and politeness, they have five or six years of war and revolutions and kill off twenty million people. And do they think there's less danger to life here? That's a riot."