By Charles Matthews

Thursday, August 4, 2011

5. The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow (in Novels 1944-1953), pp. 555-583

Chapter IX

Mrs. Renling's Pygmalion-like ambitions reach their full extent:  "she proposed to adopt me. I was supposed to become Augie Renling, live with them, and inherit all their dough."  Augie muses that there seems to have been "something adoptional about me," reasoning from the fact that the Einhorns had to make it clear that they didn't plan to make him a member of their family and thereby endanger the inheritance of their own son, Arthur. But he also recognizes the Renling plan as a challenge to his own identity: "Why should I turn into one of those people who didn't know who they themselves were?"

Mrs. Renling is so bent on the idea that she even tries to persuade him that it would make him attractive to the Fenchel daughters, which does tempt him for a moment until he realizes that Esther Fenchel probably would never have him. He reflects that it never seems to have occurred to Mrs. Renling that he might not want to be adopted: "she assumed, as if it were normal but not to be mentioned, something else: that, like everyone, I was self-seeking." But he turns her down: "I had family enough to suit me and history to be loyal to, not as though I had been gotten off of a stockpile." Finally she tells him that "if I refused my chance there was oblivion waiting for me instead; the wicked would get hold of me. I tried not to reject the truth in what I was told, and I had a lot of regard for the power of women to know it."

So he goes to see Einhorn for advice. But Einhorn has begun to rebuild his collapsed empire, and is now occupied with other matters, including a new mistress-secretary named Mildred Stark. "He gave it less than half his mind, thinking I was telling him the news that the Renlings wanted to adopt me, not that I considered refusing." Then while Augie is eating lunch downtown, he runs into an acquaintance named Clarence Ruber, who has a small shop on the South Shore that "dealt in lamps, pictures, vases, piano scarves, ashtrays and such bric-a-brac." Ruber has met an inventor of a new waterproof rubberized paint, and looking for someone to take his place in the shop. He thinks Augie would be the right man for the job.

So he makes his break with the Renlings and moves to the South Shore, not far from the nursing home where Grandma Lausch lives. He goes to visit her, but she seems barely to remember him. He realizes "how mall a part of her life compared with the whole span she had spent with us, and how many bayous and deadwaters there must be to the sides of an old varicose channel." He is shocked at her feebleness -- "Her we always thought so powerful and shockproof! It really threw me." He promises to come visit her again, but doesn't, and she dies that winter of pneumonia.

The new job doesn't go well, and Augie realizes that Ruber's partner in the shop wants him out, so he goes to work as a salesman for Ruber in the rubberized paint business. But Ruber puts him on commission rather than salary, and he finds it difficult to move the product. One of Einhorn's cousins agrees to take it, but "said he would never use it in any of his better establishments because it made a loud smell of rubber in the heat and moisture of the shower room." The drop in Augie's income puts Simon in a bind because Augie is unable to contribute to the support of their mother.

Augie's reputation as a clotheshorse begins to suffer: He's no longer able to afford cleaning and repairs for his clothing. His economies also take a toll on his morale. Then one day he runs into Joe Gorman, who had inveigled him into the robbery. Gorman has a new scheme: "Running immigrants over the border from Canada." It's not "legitimate," he tells Augie, but "it's a lot easier and safer" than robbery. Augie doesn't want to do it, but Gorman says he'll pay him fifty dollars to be his relief driver part of the way, and a hundred if he decides to continue. Augie decides there's nothing to be lost from the proposition, and agrees to go along and think about it on the road.

Gorman shows up in a souped-up black Buick, and they set out. When they reach Toledo, Augie takes his turn at the wheel, but Gorman is impatient because Augie drives too slowly and cautiously. Near Lackawanna they stop for gas, and Gorman sends Augie to buy some hamburgers to take with them. But as he is coming out of the restroom, Augie sees a state trooper examining the car. Gorman is nowhere to be seen. Fearing the worst, Augie slips out the back of the hamburger joint and sees Gorman heading toward the woods. He catches up with Gorman and sees that he has a gun. Gorman confesses that the car is stolen.

The trooper is looking for them, but they manage to get away. They decide to split up, and Gorman says he'll meet Augie in Buffalo the next day at nine o'clock. After they separate, however, Augie decides to make his way back to Chicago. Then he sees a group of men gathering for a protest march on Albany or Washington to demand a welfare increase, and hitches a ride that will take him into Buffalo after all. On the way they pass a squad car going in the other direction, with Gorman "sitting in the back seat between two troopers, with blood lines over his chin showing that he had probably tried to fight with them and they had opened up his lip."

When they reach the town, Augie gets a hotel room for the night, and after breakfast realizes that he doesn't have enough money left for a ticket back to Chicago. He telegraphs Simon to wire him some money, but by late afternoon realizes that Simon isn't going to respond to the request. So he takes a bus to Erie, thinking that it would be better not to stay on the road in New York, just in case the troopers are looking for him. He spends the night in a flophouse, then starts hitchhiking the next day. But there are so many hitchhikers on the road that he has no success.

He keeps walking, and at a railroad crossing near Ashtabula he manages to hop a freight train that takes him to Cleveland. He hears from the other "non-paying passengers" that there is an express freight getting ready to go to Toledo, and he joins a mob of men that rush for the freight when it gets under way. He finds himself with three others, "a lean, wolfy man," a boy called Stoney, and a black man. But the train doesn't go to Toledo after all. It stops at Lorain, where the boy joins up with him as they look for a place to spend the night.
On the sidings we found some boxcars retired from service, of great age, rotten and swollen, filled with old paper and straw, a cheesy old hogshead stink of cast-off things such as draws rats, a marly or fungus white on the walls. There we bedded down in the refuse.
Others join them during the night, and Augie finds himself being approached by a man for sex, so he moves away from him.

It takes Augie five days to make his way back to Chicago because he gets on a train to Detroit by mistake. He and Stoney are kicked  off of that train twenty miles outside of Detroit, and as they are looking for a ride they are joined by the "wolf-looking man" that had been with them on the earlier train. The three of them catch a ride on a truck that takes them into Detroit, where Augie hopes to get a bus to Chicago with the little money he has left. But as they are walking toward the center of town, a squad car picks them up.

Augie is afraid he has been spotted in connection with Gorman, but they have really been picked up on suspicion of being members of "the Foley gang," which steals auto parts from wrecking yards. After interrogation, an old man is brought in who recognizes Wolfy as having been jailed there three years ago. They are all jailed overnight.
I must say I didn't get any great shock from this of personal injustice. I wanted to be out and on my way, and that was nearly all. I suffered over Joe Gorman, caught and beat. However, as I felt on entering Erie, Pennsylvania, there is a darkness. It is for everyone. You don't, as perhaps some imagine, try it, one foot into it like a barbershop "September Morn." Nor are lowered into it with visitor's curiosity, as the old Eastern monarch was let down into the weeds inside a glass ball to observe the fishes. Nor are lifted straight out after an unlucky tumble, like a Napoleon from the mud of the Arcole where he had been standing up to his thoughtful nose while the Hungarian bullets broke the clay off the banks. Only some Greeks and admirers of theirs, in their liquid noon, where the friendship of beauty to human things was perfect, thought they were clearly divided from this darkness. And these Greeks too were in it. But still they are the admiration of the rest of the mud-sprung, famine-knifed, street-pounding, war-rattled, difficult, painstaking, kicked in the belly, grief and cartilage mankind, the multitude, some under a coal-sucking Vesuvius of chaos smoke, some inside a heaving Calcutta midnight, who very well know where they are.
The next morning Augie and Stoney are released. They take a trolley to the city limits, where Augie is awakened by the conductor to tell him he needs to transfer. When he gets off he realizes that Stoney is still asleep on the car, but he's unable to wake him. He takes the connecting trolley to the end of the line where he waits, hoping that Stoney has figured out how to catch up with him. "I felt despondent that I had lost him."

Finally, he starts to hitchhike, getting a ride into Jackson where he finds a cheap flophouse. The next day he is picked up by a salesman for a film company who takes him to Chicago.

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