Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories
Chicago, that gritty city, has a hammerlock on Saul Bellow’s imagination, and has held it there for a long time. Even when he takes his fictional characters elsewhere, they carry Chicago with them, and come back to Chicago for final authentication. (Henderson the Rain King, that gross and glittering piece of foolery, is an exception to this rule, as to many others in Bellow’s work.) It is not that Bellow idealizes his adopted city, not at all; his feeling seems something like that suggested by Nelson Algren when he said (I quote from memory and approximately) that living in Chicago was like making love to a woman with a broken nose. Bellow is always quarreling with Chicago, sometimes for being what it is, sometimes for not being what it used to be; but Chicago names and neighborhoods are generally present in his fiction, often as shorthand for attitudes and values of which they are redolent.
A recurrent theme of his work is the contrast between the brute appetites of the city, its hoodlums, grifters, shysters, and aldermen, and various observant but uprooted and largely ineffectual intellectuals. They may be actual or, more commonly, tangential academics, bookish in their interests but not formally engaged with a discipline, and freewheeling toward immense philosophical constructs of their own contrivance. Like the “intelligentsia” of Chekhov’s Russia, they are absurd and beguiling figures, ineffectual vehicles of aspiration at hopeless odds with the raw realities around them, but striving always to learn. For of false teachers, comic or villainous, there is never an end.
The balance between these forces is precarious and the tensions high. Chicago itself is a devouring subject, vital and corrupt, open and crass, violent and plutocratic. Hardly any of these elements is distinctive to Chicago; their combination produces an aroma that realistic writers since the 1920s have been trying to render, and from which Bellow’s idealists always have something to learn. For these are uncommonly starry-eyed types whose discourse always threatens to evaporate into airy schemes filled out with flying allusions to every author in the Syntopicon. Rising above the harsh life of the streets and the markets, they tend to become—not always without self-mockery—do-it-yourself space navigators, trekkies through the Great Books galaxy. Between the two parties, incomprehension is represented as mutual, and hardly ever without the overtone of contempt. The city is seen as crass, the big thinkers are seen as pretentious irresponsibles. The terms of intercourse seem far harsher and more forbidding in Chicago than, say, in New York, Boston, or San Francisco. Yet the relation is more complex than mere hostility; the word-men of Bellow’s imagination would probably hasten to call it “symbiotic.”
There is a curious story in the present collection of five, titled “Zetland: By a Character Witness.” Technically, it is probably the worst, but thematically it is one of the most interesting of the group. The occasion for which the character witness has been called is left completely to …