Augie March lives quite a life [in The Adventures of Augie March]. Up from the depths of poverty to the heights of success, back down, back up, and all in most peculiar fashion. Jobs, journeys, jolts—and women, women, women. Crime and college, labor unions and athletic clubs, Chicago and Mexico, slums and society, thievery and high honor: these form the panorama for Augie. And that’s the book. It’s a chronicle of an age and a case history of assorted human beings, most of whom are engaged, in one way or another, in using their fellow–men and helping or hurting their families and friends. A good many of these people are psychopathic; at best they have interesting eccentricities, and at worst they are criminals. And they are colorful, sometimes, and boring at other times. Augie himself never quite arrives anywhere and unless he is tormenting himself, he never is quite happy.
Saul Bellow has some fine things in this book. The characterization is complete to the point of exhaustion. The dialogue, when it’s on–the–spot exchange, is sharp. When his people wander and meander in the realm of philosophy, garden variety or formal, they are windy and repetitious, and sound like cheap imitations of Proustians. The liberal–radical overtones of some sections are overdone and do not ring with authenticity. For Augie to break off his organizing activity for a quick but grand passion with one of the organizers, and then to flee to the arms of a wealthy nymphomaniac, is almost comic opera, twentieth century style.
But the best and the weirdest episode is the sojourn in Mexico with the latter lady. The two train an eagle to catch lizards, and the eagle is a flop. The society that surrounds them is full of nuts and cranks, and the eagle will catch anything and everything in the animal kingdom, except a mongoose. The Mexican stay is full of riot and rot, and at times is supremely funny.
The portraits of old families and their ties and splits are in great style. Indeed, several of them could be simply extracted and presented as very thorough national and racial profiles. These are the portraits that make the book, because as a novel there is no depth and no great theme. All the events are loosely tied, and people run in and out of the various stages of Augie’s strange progress through life and the world. The one constant thread is the great but bumpy love between Augie and his money–worshipping brother, Simon. But there is no real power here and no tremendous insight that Bellow certainly was striving to achieve. I suppose the scene with Augie in a lifeboat with a maniac, off the Canary Islands, is as typical of the work as any. It’s that kind of a book.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010
T. E. Cassidy, ‘‘From Chicago,’’ in Commonweal, Vol. 58, No. 26, October 2, 1953, p. 636