This is Bellow.
Not the early, picaresque Bellow of Augie (1953) – which I do not much like – writing a clunky, poorly edited, Americanized, Depression-Era Bildungsroman…, with the so-unBellow-like voice of sentences made in endless *largo*… but the Bellow that has found his voice, for better and even, sometimes, for worse…. A Bellow that is modern, urban, postwar, a scratchingly desperate New York Manhattan Bellow…, not the yuppified, gentrified, Ed Kochified Manhattan of Annie Hall, but the Manhattan of 1956… when New York first was Rome…, Saul Steinberg’s view of America..., Tamkin's view of the Hudson... the center... the omphalos... of the early, still innocent Imperium, and yet already reeking of the dirty, worn out, aging, clogged streets... the Upper West Side... tenements and apartment houses built in the 1890s..., a New York when the Empire State Building was still the tallest building in the world... no gleaming Midtown… full of decaying and dying immigrants from the collapse of Europe, Austro-Hungarians (Wilhelm Adler), rouged and wrinkled, hanging at the Automat…, and likewise full of those NEW teeming immigrants from Puerto Rico, from… of the dirty, sooty, heat rising from the subway gratings in those filthy islands in the middle of B'way... where the pigeons shit and croon and poke for crumbs amidst the litter and the dog crap..., while the old men in their dirty brown hats and baggy brown pants, the color of ochre... and black suspenders, toothless, kvetching, watching, nodding… feeding the pigeons, watching the Puerto Ricans and taxis and buses and smoke rising in those clear blue skies... the currents flowing of millions of every race, of every genius, of everyman… of every… a New York of Adlers and Rappaports and Tamkins and Rubins and...puckered old ladies and street beggars and... the New York of a time and place of my memories… authentic.... a Bellow controlled… the sprawling world of Augie condensed into a mere 100 pages and change… perfected, disciplined, sad…
The action takes place partially in the Gloriana, across the street from… really a shadow and knock-off, a foil for the old Ansonia…, and in a small, brown, smokey, crowded little brokerage house, almost a bucket-shop, brilliantly and accurately captured in the film (Robin Williams is Tommy Wilhelm), which my grandfather used to take me to when I was a very, very little child and which, as I remember it, was on 79th street, on the southeast corner of B’way, right underneath what was for years the old Guys ‘n Dolls Billiard Hall, which was one flight up… though my memory could be wrong…
… in other words…, authentic.
And Wilhelm…? He is in a state of collapse… in crisis… but here’s the thing, and what I think most people miss, and miss (revealingly) because most people who read literature nowadays in America are relentlessly, immovably, uncomprehendingly, genetically middle-class, unthreatened by catastrophe, held up, even when slumming, by a massive, personal safety net of parents in Westchester, of trusts, of bonds, of… but no, not Wilhelm – Tommy is in REAL crisis… his mother is dead, his father is loveless and will not help, his sister is alienated, his wife is a shit and squeezing him and bleeding him... and – and here’s thing – he has no money. He lost his job – not through his own fault – but because has too much damned pride (and deservedly so... for Wilhelm is, indeed, a Prince among men...) to go begging for half his salary back… just because the son-in-law moved in… and schtooped his way into Wilhelm's rightful slot... that is, Tommy Wilhelm... Wilkie Adler..., that Prince..., has no goddamned money and is on the point of collapse…
And none of it REALLY is his fault.
Sure… he has faults… he’s naïve, idealistic, a bit stubborn… worse, he thinks he deserves better, deserves pity even.. but so what… so would anyone... and he certainly doesn’t deserve THIS... THIS dreck (!) – when every two-bit charlatan, dishonest, unfeeling faker seems to manage what poor Wilhelm – a prince..., feeling in uncommon depths… honest to a fault… can’t seem to manage – namely – a measly 15 grand a year…. and in fact…, he’ll settle for less… much less! screw the money… at least have some pity… some mercy…, no…!? Is THAT too much to ask...!
In other words, this is not really Shakespearean tragedy… it is Greek tragedy…with a modernist, yiddish twist.
There is, says Freud, such a thing as a REAL neurosis – that is, a neurosis that is a response NOT to the contents of the repressed, but to REAL circumstances… circumstances that press on you so bad that you can scream, you can’t breath, and you don’t fucking deserve this… and yet… you got it… and the character and personality threaten to disintegrate… death while standing, death while walking, death while talking… death while watching yourself dying a death on the installment plan… and it is this… this REAL breakdown of the TRULY neurotic Tommy Wilhelm which is the subject of this lovely little book.
In other words, Wilhelm, I think, is a little bit of a modern Job
Sorry for the long rambling comments – I usually avoid writing long reviews, as you all know. But it has to be said.