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on April 15, 2003
This is easily one of the finest novels that I have ever had a chance to read and proves one of the basic rules of good fiction--experience bucks education. Augie is the product of his own character, intent on understanding all that surrounds him as he makes his way through up and down the cultural, class, and political divides of the 1920's, 30's and 40's. The narrative is the education of a poor boy who could see as much value in the pronouncements of a crippled boss, exiled intelligentsia, and pool room hustlers as in the massive amount of poetry, fiction, and history that he assimilates into his worldview--one that values common decency as much as intelligence and cunning.

This is a book that I have now read three times and the view of American idealism from fifty years ago when it was published is simply awe inspiring. The times when the text breaks from its narrative molde and goes into an extended discussion of philosophicl ideas in Yiddish inflected vernacular with idiosyncratic grammar can make you cranky and can often be perplexing. This is completely secondary though, for a close reading of any of these passages brings to light just how sophisticated Augie is--some of the actions he takes make him seem only slightly smarter than an ape though.

If this had been the only book that Bellow had written he still would have earned the Nobel Prize in 1976. I can thnk of few books I have read where a character has drank so deeply and appreciatively of their own culture, upbringing, and experience as Augie March did. When Augie opens his mouth with the book's first sentence declaring "I am an American," he speaks with a level of sincerity, certainty and complexity that animates very few other characters in the novels of any nation.
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on May 28, 2001
(In response to various clowns, bores and book clubbers): Refusing to connect with Augie March is refusing to acknowledge the shots of brillance that can and should be absorbed while traversing through a universally chipped paint existance. To stop yourself short from engaging in the lets-run-through-the-park momentum of Augie's adventure, the thinking person's adventure, our adventure, is to settle for a poster of Paris because the trip is too much the hassle. Fair enough, the "adventure" had by Augie is Not an A to B plot-o-rama, spoon fed lessons learned, ring tosses at color coated Truth. Looks out, he's coming of age...and...he does it! Phew. No, it's not that. It's not loads of misanthropic scandal and unhinged naked nubiles to hold interest. It does expect a little more from us. But simple pages does not an interesting book make. Simple ideas lead to a hobby of televsion watching. Simple perspectives lead to lonely walks, and race riots, and war. If, the senses are geared up for expansion, then stretch out further and get in deeper, dig around in the broken shards and look in the windows, take up a new rhythm, don't turn it off. This book is vitality. Augie is taking us with him gang, all we have to do is tag along, and for the love of god, when the opportunity is there, by all means, pack quickly and go.
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on February 22, 2002
The Adventures of Auggie March is a difficult book to read, but when read slowly, it rewards your effort more than most books do.
Auggie is an odd character who meets a lot of other odd characters. During the course of his adventures, he learns a lot about the world, or says he does, but he's not good at applying what he learns to his own life, and he ends up in about as big a mess as he begins in. This is a little disappointing, but Auggie is not that sympathetic a character, so it's not as disappointing as it might be.
We learn a lot too. Saul Bellow studied sociology and anthropology, and he tells us a thing or two about the poor, and people who are down on their luck. At one point, Einhorn, Auggie's mentor, tells him: "Young fellows brought up in bad luck, like you, are naturals to keep the jails filled - the reformatories, all the institutions. What the state orders bread and beans long in advance for. It knows there's an element that can be depended on to come behind bars to eat it." Similarly informative passages, about business, love, the training of wild animals, etc., can be found by opening the book at random to almost any page. (In fairness, a good part of what's said is over-generalization or just not true, but still you're going to leave this book feeling pretty impressed by what the author knows.)
So why not five stars? For one thing, the writing doesn't exactly propel you from one page to the next. For another, the book is not very uplifting. You've heard of Man's Search for Meaning? This book comes very close to telling us that there isn't any. That's pretty hard to take.
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on December 26, 2000
Saul Bellow writing is very poetic and beautifully scripted - it's not straightforward to read, but then again since Bellow is examining the purposes of our lives, I wouldn't expect the novel and writing style to oversimplify our predicament. Augie is a poor Jewish boy growing up in Chicago - "that somber city" - in a broken home with his dictatorial Grandmother, abandoned mother, and two diametrically opposed brothers (Simon and George.) He finds his brother Simon obsessed with material facts and riches that he cannot possess. Whereas Augie maintains a carefree life experimenting and dabbling with various encounters with different people and places in Chicago, Mexico, and Europe - never quite satisfied or convinced of the importance of each situation. Augie resists the Machiavellian pursuits of his older brother Simon, and is willing to live as a pauper, and as a result, not be controlled by money, wives, children, and especially responsibilities.
Augie's plight is like any other introspective journey. What is my purpose? Why am I here? Bellow, I believe tries to not necessarily answer this question, but rather appreciates the quandary that many of us find ourselves in. At one point Augie's epiphany - the essential and natural course and purpose of life is each person's axial lines. Freedom of thought and emotions - and love our what keeps Augie in line with his purpose.
This is not an easy book to read, but a fascinating and poetic journey that requires time and patience from the reader. I am considering reading it again to soak in all of the details I missed. I wholeheartedly recommend this book; despite the ruminations of other reviewers that took offense to the existential tract of Saul Bellow, I believe that whether you believe in a chaotic or an ordered loving universe - either way you'll find the book interesting and the dilemma facing humans an interesting mess. The book took me 5 weeks to read - I have a voracious appetite for books and usually read them in much less time - so those of you considering reading this book - make sure you are in it for the long haul!
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on December 12, 2003
The perfect gift for any male who has learned to read. Although it is filled with daunting historical and anthropological references, one needn't be afraid to skip them. Bellow would be the first to understand. This is the greatest American novel and nothing else is even close. Melville, Hawthorne, James, Dreiser, Lewis, Wolfe, Hemmingway, Mailer, et. al., are amateurs by comparison. If you are going to read one book in your lifetime, THIS IS THE ONE. What is it about? It's about everything: the straight dope, no quarter given, no sacred cow spared, no good deed unpunished, no relief for either the virtuous or the wicked; humanity celebrated and exposed; the old, the young, connivers, sufferers, strivers, slackers, cons, cripples, pols, debutantes, grand dames, burghers, prize fighters, polymaths, revolutionists, feminists, whores, and tycoons; authority, philosopy, religion, politics, economics, civics, tribalism, philanthropy, sex, money, pride, vanity, hope, despair, all tickled relentlessly and effortlessly, toppled of their own weight. Bellow looks into the void and comes away chuckling, and so will you if you've got the right stuff. If you haven't got it, let Augie help you find it, but don't forget to read between the lines. Whatever you do, don't let academic idiots and caviling critics divert you from reading it.
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on May 15, 1999
This novel is unquestionably one of the great masterpieces of our time.
Saul Bellow paints portraits of characters like Rembrandt. He has a brilliant technique for divulging not only the physical nuances of his characters but also gets deep into the essence of their souls.
He has an astute grasp of motivation and spins a complex tale with an ease that astounds. Even the most unusual twists of fate seem natural and authentic.
Augie is a man "in search of a worthwhile fate." After struggling at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a penniless youth in Chicago, he ultimately discovers that alignment with the "axial lines" of his existence is the secret to human fulfillment.
While his brother is engrossed in chasing after financial enrichment and social esteem, Augie learns through his own striving that such pursuit is "merely clownery hiding tragedy."
Augie is a man dogged in his pursuit of the American dream who has an epiphany that the riches that life has to offer lie in the secrets at the heart's core. If, as Sarte says, life is the search for meaning, then Augie is the inspired champion of this great human quest.
The true test of a great book is that you wish it would never end. Fortunately, Saul Bellow is as prolific as he is brilliant and there is much more to explore.
Bellow is worthy of the characterization of one of America's best living novelists: he is a treasure. His wisdom staggers the imagination.
Don't let this novel pass you by!
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on July 10, 2000
"The Adventures of Augie March" is a coming-of-age story about a young man who grows up in a working-class Jewish neighborhood of Chicago in the first half of the 20th century. Augie is intelligent and articulate, but he seems to wander through life passively with no definite goals and not many interests. As the Depression hits, he is forced to postpone his academic pursuits in order to make a living, taking a wide variety of odd jobs, including stealing books, organizing labor unions, and working as a research assistant to an eccentric wealthy man writing a book about wealthy people. Eventually he decides to become a schoolteacher, but even this profession is relatively short-lived. The novel culminates in Augie's discovery that he must align himself with the "axial lines" of his life.
Augie's "adventures" consist mainly of his getting entangled in various affairs of his relatives, friends, girlfriends, and employers. These episodes range dramatically from his nearly getting caught by the police in a stolen car, to his accompaniment of his friend Mimi to an abortionist and her subsequent grave illness (probably a bold thing to write about at the time), to helping his girlfriend Thea train an eagle to hunt lizards in Mexico. (Thea finds, to her frustration, that she can train neither the eagle nor Augie.) This is a bizarre assortment of events, but the depiction of each is strangely realistic and unique.
The narration is masterfully constructed with Bellow's erudite prose and penchant for rich description. Reading this novel is challenging but ultimately rewarding.
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on October 22, 1997
This is the earliest Saul Bellow novel I have read thus far, and I've found it to be on par with his later, more mature and stylistically sharper works. This novel literally recreates life in the Depression and afterwards, something I never lived through but could swear on did now, knowing the attitudes and moods of the times that Bellow so expertly details in this rollicking novel.
The cover alone drew me in, the stark black and white shot of 1930's Chicago, a moment captured of bustling humanity, an era that can never be recreated, that can only be discovered in books suck as these. Augie March is one of the most positive and endearing characters, trusting everyone and falling down again and again, but always get back up.

Bellow weaves his huge cast of characters, far larger than his other later novels, with ease and any comparsion to Dickens are appropriate, but Bellow's style flows better, from first to last sentence, there is not a wasted phrase, not a lost word, not a sentence that leaves one scratching one's head in puzzlement.

This is literature of the best kind, the kind that makes you think and feel. This is literature doing what it is supposed to be doing.
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on January 5, 2000
Augie March had an interesting life in his teens and twenties. We follow him through the Great Depression and WW2. The Depression is summed up in a rich, cagy cripple named Einhorn. The war is largely spent in a lifeboat with a maniac.
Augie's greatest adventures are romantic. The leading ladies are assertive Thea Fenchel and beautiful Stella. Thea chases Augie down, despite the fact that it is her sister who Augie has a crush on. But Augie is led by the nose, and doesn't have a chance against a strong willed woman. She drags him to Mexico to bag an eagle and train it to hunt giant lizards. Like Augie, the eagle disappoints her.
Then there's beautiful Stella, damsel in distress, asking Augie to rescue her from a man and a situation. Thea says Don't you dare! But our Augie can't say no to a damsel in distress. When he is rescuing her the car breaks down, they spend the night together, yada yada yada.
In the end, Augie ends up marrying someone. He's the type of guy who really just wants unity with a special someone, a loving wife and a happy family. Either of these girls could have bagged him like an eagle in a sack. So could any other girl with a strong will. Just grab him by the ear and pull him to the Justice of the Peace.
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on September 9, 2000
As a sum of landscapes, spaces and altitudes, America as a wilderness has already been explored. In fact, while early American history reveled in the most basic of freedoms that can be found in various lands untrod, the urge that drives us towards (and often away from) freedom remains--sometimes as a nuisance, almost always as a kind of tug away from the quotidian and run-of-the-mill. It's a distinctly American drive that leads us to defy laws and morays, explore the unexplored permutations of our innermost selves, and to transcend the expectations of family, friends and, of course, ourselves. Saul Bellow's "The Adventures of Augie March," ostensibly a celebration of the life in the 1930s of a sensitive drifter and searcher, is also a transfiguration of the American novel: The story of a Huckleberry Finn of the urban milleux.
Predating Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" by nearly a decade, "The Adventures of Augie March" tells the story of a young man from an impoverished Chicago neighborhood who rejects conventional expectations that he make the best of all good situations that, in other lives, would have led to riches and satisfaction. While his brother Simon goes out to find the quickest way to taste the cream of the business world, only to discover that it isn't at all the way to the happiness he'd imagined, Augie--a man who never quite makes the break from childhood into manhood but instead continues on the same unbroken line of judging the world through what refractions the lenses of his emotions augur--continually renews himself through a series of piqaresque adventures as he searches for "the axial lines" of his life.
After a miserably unsuccessful flirtation with petty crime (he helps a hoodlum buddy break into a basement), Augie, part of an entire generation of men who really didn't stand a chance at success in the world, at least once the Great Depression descended, journeys through the eccentricities of Chicago, a town that, like Augie, rejected the more conventional ways and means of the East Coast establishment as it came into its own as a great city. Falling under the official and unofficial tuteledges of a variety of oddballs, schnooks and characters, Augie often lucks out, too, meeting beautiful heiresses and slipping into High Society almost without really realizing it. However, regardless of the chance at ensnaring the easy dream, Augie withdraws, to the confoundment of his friends and mentors, only to be reborn again.
Perhaps the most sparkling episode occurs when Augie, enamored by the unconventional activities of his girlfriend, Thea, follows her to Mexico--where she buys an eagle and trains it to hunt huge lizards. How on earth did either of them manage to sleep with that eagle sitting on the dresser of the hotel room? Of course, regardless of the exotic character of this infatuation, the mission fails and Augie returns to Chicago, metaphor and emblem of all the freedom for which Augie yearns.
Each episode is represented by one of several paradigmatic figures; each episode a stage of a hero's journey, a step on darkened glass that cannot help but mirror a phase of every man's life. Poignantly possessing the colorations and expressive details of the hardships, the oddball twists and the distortions of American dreams mutated by the trials of economic depravity, "The Adventures of Augie March," Saul Bellow's earliest great novel, ruminates and vents like the wind across Lake Michigan. Of course, Augie is smarter than he thinks he is. If there is any imperfection at all in the story, it's that Augie is simply too smart to be believed.
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