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.

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