Saul Bellow Week, Day 6 – Looking For Mr. Green

Was he awed by the success of his bizarre enterprise and therefore ready to spend money to find out where in the universe being and seeming were identical?  Yes, he wanted to know what abides; and whether flesh is Bible grass; and he offered money to be burned in the fire of suns.

In “Looking For Mr. Green”, Saul Bellow tackles the issue of money. George Grebe gets a job during the Great Depression handing out relief checks to an impoverished Chicago neighborhood. As the title implies, he can’t find Mr. Green, a check recipient, nor can he find anyone who knows him.

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As Grebe makes his search, he encounters a woman who sets up her ironing in the relief office because she can’t get money to pay her electric bill.  He meets a janitor who barely gets by and an elderly gentleman who thinks he knows the solution to the poverty issue.

Does he eventually find Mr. Green?  To a certain degree, yes. Is Grebe’s problem solved by handing over the check? Maybe – at least for that day.  Similar to the poverty issue, Grebe offers a quick fix that might cause problems down the road.

This story utilizes Saul Bellow’s vast knowledge of Philosophy, History, Politics, Religion, Art and Science and combines it with a great narrative and fascinating characters. After “A Silver Dish”, I think “Looking For Mr. Green” is the Saul Bellow story I would recommend next.

Saul Bellow Week, Day 5 – Mosby’s Memoir

I confess that there have been times this week when I feel like I would understand some of Saul Bellow’s stories better if I had a Ph.D in Philosophy or Political Science or History or maybe even all three.  On the other hand, it hasn’t diminished my overall enjoyment and appreciation of them.

“Mosby’s Memoir” might be the exception to the latter rule.  Willis Mosby visits Mexico to write his memoir.  The majority of the story tells Mosby’s memories and thoughts as he contemplates what to include in his memoir. Many of these thoughts involve Lustgarten, his friend, both current and former, if I understand correctly.

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The current and former aspect of this story could be puzzling in that present and past seems to get mixed up within the same paragraph. Any reader who enjoys a challenge and having to think very hard while reading a story should love this one. I don’t know whether I was simply lazy or whether it was just over my head – maybe a little of both.

Saul Bellow Week, Day 4 – By the St. Lawrence

The observations, Rexler was to learn, were his whole life – his being – and love was what produced them.  For each physical trait there was a corresponding feeling. Paired, pair by pair, they walked back and forth, in and out of his soul.

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Of what I’ve read so far, “By the St. Lawrence” is Saul Bellow’s most emotional and poignant story. It’s also the shortest. While the potential for cynicism, as in “Cousins”, is there (and cousins are in this story, too), Rob Rexler has mostly happy memories of visiting his Aunt and Uncle and cousins in Lachine, Quebec when he was young – around seventy years ago.

He returns to Lachine as an elderly man in a limousine – a man of higher learning and intellect just like many of Bellow’s characters. The reader gets the impression that his life since Lachine may not have been the happiest although it certainly was successful.

Bellow gives the reader a sense of both awe and despair as Rexler returns to a town where most of his memories have been torn down. The sadness of growing old seems to appear in much of Bellow’s writing; however, with “By the St. Lawrence”, it’s more in the forefront.

Saul Bellow Week, Day 3 – Cousins

Anyone trying to map out Ijah Brodsky’s family tree in Saul Bellow’s short story “Cousins” is probably missing the point.

Ijah narrates the story in what has become familiar ramblings in the works I’ve read by Bellows so far. In this case, Ijah jumps from Cousin Tanky’s connection to the Chicago mob to Tanky’s sister Eunice who enlists Ijah for some legal help with her brother to ninety-one year-old Cousin Motty who is in a car accident but gives Ijah numerous letters from Cousin Scholem, whom he (Ijah) hasn’t seen in thirty years, asking for assistance to get buried in East Germany. The story is set in 1983 before the Berlin Wall came down.  Many of Ijah’s relatives lived there prior to the wall going up.  Cousin Seckel and Cousin Riva  and Cousin Mendy all have some part in the ramblings, as well.

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As narrator, Ijah comes across as a little more cynical than the narrators of the other Bellow stories I’ve read although I get the feeling that cynicism is a familiar quality in Bellow’s characters. If all the cousins have a purpose in the story, I would say that it’s to highlight the detachment Ijah doesn’t necessarily mind feeling from his society.  He doesn’t have much to say about his immediate family.  Perhaps, the cousins provide him a family of sort but with some needed distance.

Ijah’s ex-wife Sabel zeros in on his issues to which Ijah willingly agrees:

“…you have an exuberance that you keep to yourself. You have a crazy high energy absolutely peculiar to you. Because of this high charge you can defy the plain dirty facts that other people have to suffer through, whether they like it or not. What you are is an exuberance hoarder, Ijah. You live on your exuberant hoard.

Of course, the cousins also provide the story with tons of comedy as they play the wacko’s to Ijah’s straight man.

Saul Bellow Week, Day 2 – Zetland: By a Character Witness

For Day 2 of Saul Bellow Week, I read his short story “Zetland: By a Character Witness”.  This one came in at only about 30 pages – a little shorter than “Him With the Foot in His Mouth”.

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Very short on plot, the story sets out the childhood and early married life of Elias Zetland, an intellectual Jewish boy growing up in Chicago (I’m seeing a pattern, here).  The narrator is unnamed and only gives a slight clue as to his relationship with Zetland (or Zet as he calls him).  He seems to be a boyhood/adolescent friend who knows much about Zet’s life.

The usual early adulthood changes make up the plot.  Zet marries Lottie – a marriage neither family likes.  They move from Chicago to New York and Zet changes his mind about majoring in philosophy when he reads Moby-Dick.  Melville and Moby-Dick have been popping up in a lot of the stories I’ve been reading lately.

There is a light-hearted depth to “Zetland” that I’m finding is characteristic to the Saul Bellow stories I’ve read so far.  The depth comes from an obviously intelligent writer creating intelligent characters.  The light-heartedness keeps both Bellow and his characters from taking themselves too seriously.

As a native of Chicago, Bellow writes a little tongue-in-cheek as Zet and Lottie move to New York:

Zet and Lottie swam into New York City from the skies… They were in the East, where everything was better, where objects were different.  Here there was deeper meaning in the air.

I would (so far) consider Woody from “A Silver Dish” as the best example of Bellow’s characters – smart, but not wanting to follow the path set out for them by family or society. Perhaps Zet might come in second.

Saul Bellow Week, Day 1 – Him With His Foot In His Mouth

Just as previously this year with Joyce Carol Oates and Annie Proulx, after reading Saul Bellow’s short story “A Silver Dish”, I decided I wanted to explore more of Bellow’s work.  So this week will be devoted to six of his short stories.  The first one, “Him With His Foot In His Mouth”, is just as funny and just as irreverent as “A Silver Dish”.

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Here’s the incident that sparks the story:

Then, Miss Rose, you say, smiling at me, “Oh, Dr. Shawmut, in that cap you look like an archaeologist.”  Before I can stop myself, I answer, “And you look like something I just dug up.”

Thirty-five years later, Dr. Shawmut, who at the time of the incident was a young music professor at Ribier College, feels guilty for his insult and writes Miss Rose (the college librarian) an epistle of apology.  The story is sixty pages in my edition and the entire story is the letter.

The apology wanders everywhere from philosophy to art to religion to Dr. Shawmut’s mother in a nursing home to his brother’s business schemes and to the eventual reason Dr. Shawmut had to move to Canada.  Throughout, Bellow has Shawmut only half apologize.  For most of the letter, Shawmut tries to give reasons, or maybe excuses, for this thoughtlessness.

I found this story to be somewhat Woody Allen-esque in Dr. Shawmut’s neurotic ramblings and excuses for the way Dr. Shawmut turned out.  Although, I suppose Woody Allen could be Saul Bellow-ish, I’m not sure who came first.

When the insult is revealed early on in the story, I admit I had to put the book down because I was laughing so hard.  Continuing on, Bellow never misses a comedic beat.  I also enjoyed the way the reader never finds out whether Miss Rose replied or accepted his apology or is even still alive.

I hope I get as many laughs from the rest of Bellow’s stories this week.

David Foster Wallace: Good People

Deal Me In – Week 30

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According to Joyce Carol Oates in an introduction to this story, “Good People” is different from other stories by David Foster Wallace.  Since this is the first story I’ve read by Wallace, I can’t speak for the truth of that; however, I am now curious. I have to say that this story caught me off guard. It wasn’t anything like I expected.

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Lane and Sheri are college students who, based on their conversation, are religious – an Evangelical Protestant Christian type of religious. Though the words are never used, Sheri is pregnant and they are contemplating an abortion. Comparison to Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is inevitable. To himself, Lane doesn’t think he really loves Sheri. They meet at a picnic table by a lake where Lane comes to the conclusion that Sheri will want to keep the baby but will lie and say she wants to let him “off the hook”.

The story is told entirely through the thoughts of Lane but the puzzling and, I admit, appealing aspect of the story is that there is virtually no proselytizing or politicizing in the story’s tone or purpose. The title comes from Lane’s mother referring to Sheri as “good people”.  I’ve always found this phrase humorous – a person (singular) being good people (plural). The story’s strength is not simply showing Sheri as “good people” but in showing Lane and Sheri as real people.

Lane’s thoughts at the end don’t bring any conclusion to the situation but are curious nevertheless:

…why is he so sure he doesn’t love her?  Why is one kind of love any different? What if he has no earthly idea what love is? What would even Jesus do? For it was just now he felt her two small strong soft hands on his, to turn him. What if he was just afraid, if the truth was no more than this, and if what to pray for was not even love but simple courage, to meet both her eyes as she says it and trust his heart?

This story is included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates and I read it when I picked the Four of Diamonds from my Deal Me In 2015 Short Story List. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.