By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

3. The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow (in Novels 1944-1953), pp. 477-524

Chapter VI

Like so many of Bellow's protagonists, Augie is afflicted with a certain aimlessness. Henderson, for example, "wants" but doesn't seem to be able to specify what it is that he wants. So Augie observes, "My brother Simon wasn't much my senior, and he and others at our age had already got the idea there was a life to lead and had chosen their directions, while I was circling yet." Einhorn doesn't make it easier for him, because "what I was to get from him wasn't at all clear. I know I longed very much, but I didn't understand for what."

So he lingers on the fringe of the Einhorn family, watching the course their lives take. Dingbat decides to become the manager of a heavyweight fighter named Nails Nagel. "And it was just what he needed, to make speeches (his brother was a lodge and banquet orator) and to drag Nails out of his room in the morning for road work." Not that he was much good at being a manager: "Nails had won two fights in six." And the fight game ended when Nails got seasick on Lake Michigan before a fight in Muskegon and is flattened in the third round. Dingbat had been counting on a purse for the fight and is broke, so he, Nails, and Augie have to hitchhike their way back to Chicago.

While Augie is away with Dingbat and the fighter, there is a fire at the Einhorn residence that destroys the living room. It seems to have been set by Einhorn as an insurance scam, because "he had insured himself with the copany that got most of his business" and Mrs. Einhorn had been wanting to redecorate. Among the items ruined by the fire was a set of Harvard Classics whose covers had been damaged by the fire extinguisher; Augie gets those.

Unfortunately, Augie doesn't get much peace at home for reading because Grandma Lausch "had become loose in the wires and very troublesome, with the great weaknesses of old age." Because Simon is working downtown, Augie has to take over cleaning responsibilities, which are complicated by Grandma's new, unhousebroken puppy. And Augie's mother is unable to go to visit Georgie alone because of her eyesight, so he and Simon have to go with her. Georgie is getting too old for the boys' institution, so they are facing the probability that he will have to move to one of the institutions for adults downstate.

Grandma's increasing debility also becomes a burden on their mother, especially with her own worsening sight problems. Simon puts it bluntly. "She's been riding Ma for years and put on the ritz at our expense. Well, Ma can't do it anymore. If the Lausches want to hire a housekeeper, that's a fair way to settle it, but if they don't they're going to have to take her out of here." He writes to the son in Racine to this effect, and as a result, the sons arrange for Grandma to move into "the Nelson Home for the Aged and Infirm."  Grandma boasts about how splendid the facility is, and supervises the packing and the move with her usual authoritarian manner. Augie, who has been taught by Dingbat how to drive, borrows a car from Einhorn and takes her there. The facility is not the millionaire's mansion that Grandma claimed it was, but rather an old apartment house, a dumping-ground for worn-out American lives:
We came up the walk, between the slow, thought-brewing, beat-up old heads, liver-spotted, of choked old blood salts and wastes, hard and bone-bare domes, or swollen, the elevens of sinews up on collarless necks crazy with the assaults of Kansas heats and Wyoming freezes, and with the strains of kitchen toil, Far West digging, Cincinnati retailing, Omaha slaughtering, peddling, harvesting, laborious or pegging enterprise from whale-sized to infusorial that collect into the labor of the nation.
Grandma doesn't show any signs of disappointment in the actuality of the place, of course, but she treats Augie with harsh indifference. "I knew she needed to be angry and dry if she was to avoid weeping. She must have cried as soon as I left, for she wasn't so rattlebrained by old age that she didn't realize what her sons had done to her." She gives him "an angry quarter" when he leaves.

Age is taking its toll at the Einhorns' too. The Commissioner is dying. Augie notes the effect on William Einhorn: "you could see how much he had been protected by the Commissioner. After all, he became a cripple at a young age. Whether before or after marriage I never did find out." He begins to devote himself to assuming his father's part of the business, giving up his own schemes and projects. From him, Augie learns "the lessons and theories of power."

After the Commissioner's funeral, Augie helps Einhorn sort through the papers in his father's room, destroying some, saving others. Einhorn becomes aware of how much of his father's business was a matter of goodwill transactions with cronies. "It was the opening indication that the Commissioner had not left him as strong as he believed, but subject to the honor of logts of men he hadn't always treated well. He became worried and thoughtful."

Chapter VII

The 1929 Wall Street crash happens not long after the Commissioner's death, and "Einhorn was among the first to be wiped out." He even loses the building in which he lives, though he retains the poolroom, and takes over managing it, setting up his office there. But he claims that the loss is not so bad for him: "I was a cripple before and am now. Prosperity didn't make me walk, and if anybody knew what a person is liable to have happen to him, it's William Einhorn."

Augie is "a luxury," and has to be let go. He gets a job as an "apprentice soda jerk." The family savings are lost when the bank closed. Simon goes to "the municipal college, with the idea that everyone had then of preparing for one of the Civil-Service examinations." Simon has a trustworthy look that stands him in good stead, "a lifted look of unforgiving, cosmological captaincy; that look where honesty has the strength of a prejudice." Augie, on the other hand, gets mixed up in a robbery.

He is still hanging with Jimmy Klein and Clem Tambow, but in the poolroom he meets Joe Gorman, who has done time in jail for car theft, and has a plot to rob a leather-goods store. His accomplice is Sailor Bulba, whom Augie knows from school. They would break into the store and steal the handbags, and a fence named Jonas would sell them. Augie acts as lookout, but when he gets home after the robbery, he is conscience-stricken about what he has done. He tells Gorman that he won't take part in any more robberies.   

But Einhorn hears about it and is angry. He takes Augie aside in the poolroom and tells him, "if I hear of you on another job I'm going to have you thrown out of here. You'll never see the inside of this place or Tillie and me again. If your brother knew about this, by Jesus Christ! he'd beat you. I know he would." He frightens Augie by asking if Gorman had a gun, and describes a scenario in which the police arrive and Gorman shoots a cop. Then he tells Augie something about himself that Augie acknowledges to be true: "You've got opposition in you. You don't slide through everything. You just make it look so." And he warns Augie against falling "into the first trap life digs for you." He's a "setup" for a fatal mistake that could blight his life. He also adds, "'I don't ask you to take me for your model either,' too well realizing the contradiction, that I knew about his multifarious swindles.... 'But I'm not a lowlife when I think, and really think,' he said. 'In the end you can't save your soul and life by thought. But if you think, the least of the consolation prizes is the world.'"

In the end, Einhorn hires Augie again, not just to keep him out of trouble, but because he needs his help. He pays him less money, though. One of his first jobs, ironically, is helping Einhorn swindle a gangster, Nosey Mutchnik. Einhorn goes in as partner with Mutchnik in buying a piece of property that in fact Einhorn already owns. Einhorn makes more than four hundred dollars on the deal, although if Mutchnik "had found out he would have shot Einhorn or had him shot."

Einhorn's wife, Tillie, runs the lunch counter in the poolroom, managing to stay aloof from the raucous behavior and obscene talk. There are fewer women in her husband's life now, because of the poolroom. Lottie Fewter has left, though Einhorn keeps track of her up until the time 'when she was shot by a teamster-lover, the father of several children, whom she got involved in black marketing. He was caught, and there was prison coming to him, and no rap for her. Therefore he killed her." Einhorn's reaction to the murder:
"They say she was getting sloppy toward the end, and greedy about money. That was bad. There's trouble enough from fucking. She was made to have a violent thing happen to her. The world doesn't let hot blood off easy." 
When Augie graduates from high school, Mrs. Einhorn comes to the ceremony.  Afterward, he drives her back to the poolroom, where Einhorn says he's going to take Augie to a show. He's supposed to go to a party at the Kleins', but he says he can arrive late. But instead of driving Einhorn downtown, he's instructed to go somewhere that Einhorn has never been to before: a brothel. When they get there, Augie takes Einhorn on his back to the third floor.
He used to talk about himself as the Old Man of the Sea riding Sinbad. But there was Aeneas too, who carried his old dad Anchises in the burning of Troy, and that old man had been picked by Venus to be her lover, which strikes me as the better comparison.
He tells Augie to pick out any girl he wants, but when the madam enters and sees the crippled Einhorn on Augie's back, she's surprised. But he hands her a card from someone who had arranged the visit but apparently forgot to tell her about Einhorn's condition. He takes Einhorn to a room -- "this was a better-class place as I was later to know by contrast" -- where a woman is waiting for him, and gives Augie his wallet for safekeeping. Then he sends Augie away. His own prostitute is waiting for him in the parlor.
As always with strangers, I behaved as if I knew exactly what I was doing and from an idea that at a critical time it was best and most decent to have my own momentum. She did not take this away from me.... She wasn't young -- the women had made the right choice for me -- and she had sort of a crude face; but she encouraged me to treat her lover-like... I knew later that I had been lucky with her, that she had tried not to be dry with me, or satirical, and done it mercifully.... Paying didn't matter. Nor using what other people used. That's what city life is.  

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