This is my sixth Bellow novel. For first timers, I would highly recommend Henderson the Rain King over this work because Henderson is an easier, funnier, and more exuberant read--a great parody of the Hemmingway novel. That said, Mr. Sammler's Planet is classic Bellow. The protagonist, Mr. Sammler, is heroically flawed (as all of Bellow's protagonists are) and is caught at a point in his late life where numerous themes challenge his moral center: misogyny, pessimism, death, the human condition, the social contract, filial duty, the achievements of science, and modern western philosphy among other themes--and in any great Bellow work, there are so many themes!
The narrative is simple: a close third person point of view brings us inside Mr. Sammler's head as he interprets and analyzes the events in his life: his dying nephew, a pick pocket who assualts him, greedy relatives, a missing manuscript, and his Holocaust experience. There are long philosophic digressions, sometimes humorous, sometimes didactic, that can frustrate, confuse, and enlighten the reader, all within the space of a single paragraph. This density of thought is one of the supreme challenges of Bellow, but as an ardent fan (who only "gets" a mere fraction of what he's talking about), the payoff is exponentially greater than the effort I put in. The only narrative flaw I find is in the dialogue between Sammler and Dr. Lal. It's structured in a Platonic form--reminiscent of the final chapter in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man--and the section seems forced and stilted compared to the rest of the novel.
Bellow's prose is as strong as ever. We return to New York City in the late 1960s, much filthier and more violent than the setting of Seize the Day. His descriptions of people and places are vibrant, and his comic timing masterful.
Ultimately, Mr. Sammler's climatic quest, like all of Bellow's protagonists, lies not in some external feat of physical valor but in a confrontation with the progtagonist's soul. Faced with the death of his nephew, Sammler must come to terms with his life as holocaust survivor, elitist intellectual, misogynist, and man.
Saul Bellow is not for everyone... But if you are introspective, self critical, and enjoy philosophic and comic writing, than this would be an ideal 2nd or 3rd Bellow novel.