The fate of our galaxy is in peril and only one brave soul can save us from alien invaders. Who do you call? Definitely not Augie March.
Poor Augie. He's got good looks and smarts, but he's about as dependable as scaffolding held together by Elmer's glue; not the guy on whose shoulders you'd want to place the fate of the galaxy. Or the earth. Or your business.
Augie is the main character and narrator of Saul Bellow's novel, The Adventures of Augie March. The book won the National Book Award for Fiction, which is a pretty prestigious honor. Notable writers like Christopher Hitchens, Salman Rushdie, and Martin Amis were and are huge fans. When people discuss contenders of the Great American Novel, Augie March gets mentioned.
Okay. Lots of awards and praise—does that mean it's a long, dull, difficult work? Well, we'll admit that it's long and it's difficult, but it's far from dull. You meet some of the most odd and outlandish characters to grace the pages of a novel since Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
There's a Frenchman who runs a luxury club for dogs and takes way too much pleasure using the hypodermic needle—so much so that Augie, when returning dogs to their owners, has to make up stories for why the pets are unconscious. Um…where does that go on a resume?
Then there's Thea, who could have had a part in Homer's Odyssey. With little effort, she talks Augie into leaving everything and following her to Mexico so she can train a wild eagle to hunt lizards. Try putting that into a romantic comedy. Augie himself is an odd duck. He contradicts himself more than a politician does his campaign promises.
There's no overarching plot to the work. This can make it difficult to follow, but it gives the story a realistic feel. How many of our lives follow the strict rising action-climax-conclusion structure? None. This realism helps as Augie observes many strange people and unreal events. If the story felt contrived, we'd all be saying "No way!" to half the things Augie tells us. It would be too much, too incredible.
As it is, The Adventures of Augie March is a funny episodic account of Augie's life from late childhood into his early adulthood. He lives during the Great Depression and World War II, so it's also a very serious story. Ultimately it's about the absurdity of hope. A downer, you ask? On the contrary—the novel's vision is hopeful. Augie's life would tell him that the American Dream is an illusion, but—guess what?—he believes in it, even as he fails at it. He can laugh at the absurdity. Maybe we can too. Or maybe we can't, but that probably means we don't have a very good sense of humor.
If you're anything like Augie March, you're probably wondering what use this story has to you. An episodic novel set around the time of the Great Depression might make for an interesting read, but what relevance does it have today?
Augie March experiences many of the same cultural, political, and economic realities that we know very well today. His world is one of political hot-button issues that include social inequality, the definition of the family, acceptable sexuality, workers' rights, access to healthcare, abortion, immigration, poverty, and crime. Sounds just like watching twenty minutes on CNN today, doesn't it?
Readers of Augie March get a close look at how much the United States has changed since the early twentieth century and how much it has stayed the same. They'll see that the arguments we're having today on social media and cable news were had in college houses and poolrooms in Augie's time. The novel doesn't take any position on these issues, so don't worry—it never feels preachy. It's more like a set of postcards from the past that show how little the country has changed. The jury is still out on whether that's for better or worse.
Augie himself is still a relatable character. Okay, so he's super bookish and has a fondness of referencing ancient history, but we could totally see him singing along to Katy Perry or Taylor Swift. He won't let ex-lovers or haters keep him down. And if people he meets dislike him, he's got that song in his heart telling him it's going to be okay. Players gonna play. Haters gonna hate. Potatoes gonna potate. And Augie's gonna march, march, march on to his own beat.
Truth be told, Augie's love life is remarkably Swiftian. Swiftian as in Taylor Swift. With Augie, love is either "gonna be forever or it's gonna go down in flames." One minute he's about to get married, and the next we're wondering "if the high was worth the pain." He gets "drunk on jealousy." That Augie, though, he loves the game.
Famous First Lines
Need a link to the first lines of Augie March? The Chicago Tribune is here to oblige.
The entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica on Saul Bellow, because why not.
All the Bellow That's Fit to Print
A page on the New York Times website with links to book reviews, articles, and interviews with none other the Saul Bellow himself. The Saul Bellow.
The New York Times Review
Robert Gorham Davis reviews the novel in the most famous of newspapers. He emphasizes Augie's quest for self-understanding, love, and distinctiveness. What about Grandma?!
TIME's All-time 100 Novels List
Augie might never have found greatness, but TIME Magazine sees greatness in his adventures.
The American Novel and No Mistake
PBS highlights The Adventures of Augie March in its series on the American novel. Shmoop's a sucker for public broadcasting.
Chicago, Warts and All!
In this article in The Chicago Tribune, culture critic Julia Keller examines the depiction of the Windy City in Saul Bellow's classic novel. Just wait until you hear what she has to say.
Augie's Neverending Hope
The New Yorker revisits Saul Bellow's first novels, including Augie March, and includes a solid analysis of the novel's closing symbolism.
From Paris with Love
The Paris Review interviews our esteemed author.
Essay Reading with Saul Bellow
A video Saul Bellow reading an essay of his on Book TV (C-Span 2, everyone's favorite channel).
No Final Words from Saul Bellow
A video interview with our author by the Films for the Humanities and Sciences—you get a feel for his personality and basic approaches to writing.
For Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow is Great
Writer Christopher Hitchens, who wrote to the introduction to one of the editions of Augie March, presented on Bellow in 2007. It was legendary.
Bellow on the Writing Life
The author reads from one of his works and discusses the craft of writing. It's surprisingly similar to the craft of quilting. Just kidding. Maybe…
Bellow's Nobel Lecture
Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize. You can hear his speech here.
Rothstein Discusses Bellow
The culture critic of The New York Times talks about the career of Saul Bellow.
It's the Book Cover, but Don't Judge
You can see the book's cover art here.