I remember the sentence that stopped me, knocked me envious and left me wanting to write something as good:
“She was as wrinkled as an old paper bag, an autocrat, hard-shelled and jesuitical, a pouncy old hawk of a Bolshevik, her small ribboned gray feet immobile on the shoekit and stool Simon had made in the manual-training class, dingy old wool Winnie whose bad smell filled the flat on the cushion beside her.”
Almost overripe, the prose is saved by Bellow’s attentiveness to visual reality, comedy and a wide-ranging sense of history. I like the casual, playful allusiveness, Bellow’s trademark mingling of high and low. When I read the sentence for the first time at age 15, every day I was carrying my lunch to school in an old paper bag. “Autocrat” I knew – that was my father. The lower-case “j” in “jesuitical” threw me – a put-down, like Eliot’s lower-case “j” in “jew?” Why “pouncy?” An autocrat, a jesuit and a Bolshevik? I recognized and thrilled to the Joycean jettisoning of commas in “small ribboned gray feet.” “Manual-training class” meant wood shop, and my Winnie was named Mike. Literal-minded spell-check software won’t recognize “jesuitical,” “pouncy,” “ribboned” and “shoekit.”
As I reread The Adventures of Augie March, I relive some of that 40-year-old rush of excitement, possibility and recognition. Some readers claim to get it from On the Road but the comparison is no good for the simplest of reasons – Kerouac couldn’t write. His prose is prosaic. Consider the sentence that follows the one cited above:
“If wit and discontent don’t necessarily go together, it wasn’t from the old woman that I learned it.”
Kerouac had no wit and little sense of humor, and could never have crafted those two sentences or put them side by side. When I interviewed Robert Coover – hardly a Zolaesque naturalist – he said two novels published in the 1950s galvanized him and his friends and opened doors for subsequent fiction writers – Augie March (1953) and William Gaddis’ The Recognitions (1955). By the time I caught up with the former, I had already worked my way through the tradition of American fiction Bellow was surpassing, from Twain and Dreiser through Farrell and Dos Passos. During my first reading on the novel, Augie seemed like the articulate, intelligent, sober offspring of Studs Lonigan.
I was looking for a way, in words, to make sense of my American existence, and Bellow and Augie showed me one. Most of the stories I wrote in high school shamelessly borrowed Bellow’s language and his free-wheeling ways with plot. One, “The Resurrection of Vinnie Armstrong,” opened with the title character dismantling a mechanical pencil and ended with him stealing a car and driving west. My enthusiasm was boosted by the thrill of finding the name of my home town in the text. I remember I was in my room, lying on the bed, when I read it for the first time:
“The traffic dived and quivered past me, and when I reached a place near Ashtabula, Ohio, where the Nickel Plate line approaches the highway, I saw a freight going toward Cleveland with men sitting on the boxcars, and in the flats, and in under-angles of gondolas, and eight or ten guys shagging after and flipping themselves up on the rungs.”