The Actualby Saul Bellow
Harry Trellman doesn't belong. Not in the Chicago orphanage where he is sent by his mother, not in high school (too brainy), not even on the streets. Human attachments? Yes, he has them, but they are like everything else in his life, singular and irregular. People who know him say that he "drowns his feelings in his face," and that he has a Mongolian "masked look."… See more details below
Harry Trellman doesn't belong. Not in the Chicago orphanage where he is sent by his mother, not in high school (too brainy), not even on the streets. Human attachments? Yes, he has them, but they are like everything else in his life, singular and irregular. People who know him say that he "drowns his feelings in his face," and that he has a Mongolian "masked look." But though Harry stands apart, he has always been a most keen observer, listener, recorder and interpreter, and none of this is lost on the Chicago billionaire, Sigmund Adletsky, who takes Harry into his "brain trust." He retains Harry to advise him. They discuss ordinary things - they gossip together. Old Adletsky has set feelings aside while he amassed his vast fortune. The old man is so apt that he divines the secrets behind Harry's mask, and brings him together with the one person Harry has loved dumbly for forty years. Amy Wustrin has not exactly stood apart from the sexual revolution while waiting for Harry to come wooing. Far from remaining the static object of his fantasy, she has moved about in the real world, from one marriage to another, from rich to broke, from hot high-school girl to correct matron. Still, in Amy, Harry sees what he calls his "actual." Harry has had his opportunities with Amy, but it is not until he finds himself at the cemetery with her for the exhumation and reburial of her husband that he feels free to speak out.
Chicagoan Harry Trellman, the story's narrator, is a semi- retired importer whose cautious demeanor and unusual physiognomy (he describes his countenance as "Chinese-looking") have made him a kind of outsiderfrom the centers of financial power and also from the satisfactions of romantic love. A "first-class noticer," Harry is appropriated as an advisor by elderly Sigmund Adletsky, trillionaire hotel magnate, and, as a chance by-product of joining Adletsky's "brain trust," Harry is reunited with Amy Wustrin, the woman he'd loved decades ago, and with the bittersweet memory of Amy's late husband and his old pal, faithless, freewheeling Jay ("If being sexual was like being drunk, Jay was something like a drunken driver"). Bellow expertly tangles these characters' lives together: Amy, an interior decorator, is hired to assess the value of furnishings in a luxury apartment the Adletskys covetowned by Bodo Heisinger, whose wife Madge was convicted and imprisoned for hiring a hit man to kill Bodo, who nevertheless continued to adore her and secured her release. Though Harry thinks he's separated, by looks and lifestyle, from this melodramatic human muddle ("I see myself taking pleasure in these assorted people, their motives, their behavior"), he learns he's one of thema perception emphatically confirmed by a cliffhanger ending recalling that of Bellow's great short novel Seize the Day. The working-out of these intricate plotlines is rather perfunctory, and a few redundancies have escaped editing, but the writing is sharp, and we're absorbed by the personalities of several vividly sketched characters, especially Harry, one of Bellow's most engaging everymen.
Like Augie March, Harry Trellman chooses life; like Tommy Wilhelm (of Seize the Day), he's shaped and driven not by intellectual or social imperatives, but by the insistent proddings of "the heart's ultimate need."
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