The Adventures of Augie March
by Saul Bellow
For a while I was intrigued by the description of "The Adventures of Augie March" as a "great American novel" because all the time that Augie spends in Chicago (and a couple suburbs) could have come from Dickens, transplanting Depression-era Chicago for Victorian London and Mrs. Renling for Miss Haversham, and so forth. When I thought about it deeper and looked more closely I decided what gave this "great American novel" status is not the story itself but the underlying sense of optimism as Augie never loses hope even after the love of his life leaves him and his Merchant Marine freighter gets torpedoed. It's that same spirit that sent explorers to these shores and propelled pioneers ever westward in search of Manifest Destiny.
For the obligatory plot summary, this is the story of Augie March. He grows up with his feeble-spirited mother and focused brother Simon under the control of "Grandma" Lauch, who is not their real grandma but an imperial Russian immigrant. As he gets out into the workforce (this being the Roaring Twenties he does so at a very young age) Augie works a variety of legal and illegal jobs for people like the paraplegic real estate guru Einhorn, the fussy Mrs. Renling, and his brother among others. He joins an attempt to smuggle in Canadian immigrants, steals and resells books to fund his education, and makes some shady dealings for a shady New York lawyer in post-WWII Europe. Along the way, Augie is always in search of the meaning of life. He thinks he finds it after following the beautiful Thea to Mexico to train an eagle to hunt lizards, then again after she breaks his heart and he marries the aspiring actress Stella. But in the end it's the journey that's more important than finding any concrete answer.
As far as criticisms go the sentences are often long and wordy and overloaded with obscure references to ancient history and religion and literature. Some of the characters like the Einhorns and Renlings and his in-laws the Magnuses seem largely repetitious. It's also a little too convenient that whenever Augie seems to be in a jam some old acquaintance pops up to give him a job or some advice.
But I'm willing to look past that and embrace the spirit of the story, the optimism of a man searching for meaning among meaninglessness. Compared to that, other concerns are really just a trifle.
BTW, if you're a fan of Dickens or contemporaries like John Irving then this is right up your alley. It is truly a classic.
That is all.