Saul Bellow will be eighty-two this summer. Not long ago, he told Playboy, he had been near death after partaking in the Caribbean of a fish that turned out to be toxic. But here he is, sharp as ever when he writes about low doings in Chicago and then adds his now customary outrage at the piggishness and mediocrity of American democracy.
Forty-four years ago Bellow’s breezy young character Augie March noted, “I quit thinking long ago that all old people came to rest from the things they were out for in their younger years.” Augie was right. In the Bellow world the protagonist is never at rest, and never seems much older than Bellow was in 1944, in Dangling Man, when he began the struggle to establish his own world of thought. This has always been the struggle to reach a higher plane of existence, and it has kept him contending with and curtly opposing people he considers necessarily inferior. These he has bitterly to seek out in order to observe the smallest details of their being, thus enabling him to stand “free” and be true to himself.
The Chicago Jews in his new novella The Actual are now far better off and more highly polished than they were in The Adventures of Augie March, The Dean’s December, More Die of Heartbreak, and other extensions of what becomes a personal epic whenever Bellow writes about Chicago. Though their names (with the exception of the most interesting character in the book, the billionaire Sigmund Adletsky) are now racially indistinct—Harry Trellman, Amy and Jay Wustrin, Bodo Heisinger—few are less crude and few display more “soul” than they used to. “Soul” is an odd quality in Bellow’s catalog of Chicagoans: not many characters have it. Few can survive his harsh skepticism about human nature. The Actual wearily begins, “The usual repertories of stratagems, deceits, personality rackets, ringing the changes on criminal cunning, are hardly worth examining…. That a slip of the tongue will lead you back to the mischievous id needs no more proving.”
The picturesque and vaguely endearing Sigmund Adletsky, ninety-two, shrunken but ever watchful, has made his pile by dominating a large part of Chicago. On the side he builds super-resorts for the very rich so that they can relax on exclusive Latin American beaches. Only to his tiny, frail, equally aged wife (he calls her “Dame Siggy”) is Adletsky benevolent. Foreign governments and native corporations have learned not to tangle with him. In all departments of life, except with Dame Siggy, he is watchfulness itself. This is a quality Bellow has long considered essential when dealing with the heartlessness of Chicago. It is one he loves to work up in his fiction.
Adletsky steals the show in The Actual. He owns a stretch limo that variously reminds the narrator, Harry Trellman, of a grand piano and an ocean liner. Harry says in awe: “One thing I learned in my contacts with the old man …