By Charles Matthews

Monday, August 8, 2011

9. The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow (in Novels 1944-1953), pp. 710-738

Chapter XIII

Cut free by Simon, Augie holes up with his books and actually finishes the set of Harvard Classics. (Has anyone ever really done that?) He also sits in on university lectures with Kayo Obermark, but the effect is to make him decide against continuing his education there.
After all, when the breeze turned south and west and blew from the stockyards with dust from the fertilizer plants through the handsome ivy some of the stages from the brute creation to the sublime mind seemed to have been bypassed, and it was too much of a detour.
He lives for a while on the money Mimi is repaying him. She has stopped seeing Frazer and is now going with Arthur Einhorn. Augie gets a job with the WPA as a housing inspector, but the sordidness of the slums he visits disgusts him: "The different smells of flesh in all degrees from desire to sickness followed me." Then Mimi, who belongs to the restaurant workers' union, suggests he might go to work for the CIO, then in conflict with the other great union movement, the AFL. She introduces Augie to her union's organizer, a man called Grammick.

Augie goes to work for Grammick, though he "had an idea that my good impression wasn't all my doing, but that he was trying to make time with Mimi." He is quickly deluged with all sorts of demands for attention from union members, but he feels that he needs the hard work to recover from his "blowout with Simon." He is an odd fit with the workers he encounters.
I know I seemed too fresh and well in color, not enough smoked and yellowed to appreciate what they were up against. My manner was both slipshod and peppy. They were looking for some fire-fed secret personality that would prepare the moment when they could stand up yelling rebellion.
One hotel whose workers he's trying to organize turns out to be owned by Karas, a cousin of Einhorn's. Augie drops in on Einhorn one day, and finds that his old employer has nothing against his job as an organizer. "Oh, it seems to me on both sides the ideas are the same.... To take some from one side and give it to the other, the same old economics."

Augie senses some tension in the Einhorn household, and the reason for it is revealed when Arthur Einhorn enters, and soon is followed by a small boy. "Arthur held it with the clasp of a father, unmistakably, the kid swaying from his fingers." Thus Augie learns that Arthur has been married and divorced, but his congratulating Einhorn on being a grandfather is met with an air of "pale unhappiness." It turns out that the boy's mother "dumped him on us. She put him inside the door with a note and beat it, and then we had to wait for Arthur to come home and explain."
Poor Einhorn! At any hour of his decline he could formerly have taken out the gilt bond representing Arthur, and now the spite had come upon him that the value had gone, like that of Grandma's picture-watered czarist money. The gleaming vault where he had kept this reserve wealth now let out the smell of squalor.
Einhorn is also aware of Arthur's liaison with Mimi, and is none too happy about it. He plumbs Augie for information about her, but gets nowhere. Then he suggests that Arthur might find a job like Augie's.  "I could see Arthur stooping his weight on a desk in the union hall," Augie reflects, "one finger between the covers of his Valéry, or whatever he was interested in." So he passes the buck to Mimi, who had suggested him for the job.

Like Simon, Einhorn suspects that Augie and Mimi are lovers, and Augie keeps trying to persuade him of the truth. He is, in fact, involved with a woman named Sophie Geratis, a chambermaid at a luxury hotel, who came to him for help organizing the workers there. Sophie is engaged to be married in June, and Augie "thought she was being sensible, storing up pleasure so she wouldn't have any unfaithful craving once married."

Mimi has told Augie that a woman -- "A young lady and a very pretty one, prettier than" Sophie -- has come to the rooming house looking for him when he wasn't there. Augie wonders if it was Lucy Magnus, but the woman left no note for him. After he returns home he tells Mimi he has been to see Einhorn, who suggested finding a CIO job for Arthur. Mimi doesn't like Einhorn: "As soon as I was close to him for a minute he had his hand on my leg. I don't like these old men who think they're all sex." She knows about Arthur's son and resents Einhorn's attitude toward the boy. As for Arthur's ex-wife, she says, "I can't make out from Arthur whether she's a nice girl or a tramp. He's terribly vague unless discussing ideas. What kind of bitch would ditch a kid -- when she's already had it? Unless she's sick. In the head, you understand." She wants Arthur to move out of Einhorn's, but he hasn't any money -- and he has syphilis.

A few nights later, there's a knock on Augie's door when he's in bed with Sophie. He goes to see who it is, and it's Thea Fenchel. She hired a detective to track Augie down because she wants to talk to him about something. "I had thought back on her as an erratic rich girl with whom the main thing was to be rivals with her sister," Augie reflects. Thea apologizes for interrupting them. Augie turns to see Sophie getting dressed, and pleads with her to stay, but she's determined to leave. Thea slides a note under the door and goes away. It contains her address and phone number and asks him to call her tomorrow.

The next day at work Augie telephones Thea, but gets no answer. Grammick needs him to go to South Chicago to help him that night, and they're not finished until midnight. Augie calls Thea again and when she answers tells her that he's out of town and won't be back till tomorrow afternoon. She pleads for him to come, and tells him, "I don't have long to stay in Chicago." But when he gets back to the city there's an urgent situation at the Northumberland Hotel -- the place where Sophie works. She has called and left messages for Augie because there's a strike meeting, and the AFL is competing for the contract.

Augie finds the meeting and Sophie, who is one of the leaders of the rebels who want to go with the CIO, welcomes him. He climbs up on a barrel and tells the workers that their strike would be illegal and that the AFL would take their jobs. "The thing to do is sign with us so there can be an election, and when we win we can represent you." He hands out cards for them to sign. Then several men begin making their way through the crowd moving toward Augie. "Just as I realized that these were the enemy union guy and his goons I was grabbed from behind, off the barrel, and slugged as I landed, in the eye and on the nose. I burst into blood." A group of women gather around Augie, and Sophie shows him a firedoor he can escape through. As he leaves she says, "Augie, you and me will never get together again, will we?" He replies, "I think not, Sophie. There is this other girl."

Augie makes it down the fire escape, but he's pursued by one of the goons. He manages to get on a streetcar and make his escape, hides out in a movie theater until he's sure the coast is clear, and finally "jumped into a taxi and drove to Thea's, which had been my real objective of days."

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