Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories, Saul Bellow’s latest book, is only his second collection of short fiction. It is his first book since The Dean’s December, published in 1982. Of the five works collected here, four were previously published in magazines. The one exception is “Cousins,” the novella that concludes the volume. Comic in tone, exuberant in its rich mining of character, Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories is a collection of highly digressive tales concentrating on a familiar Bellow theme: the spiritual decline of modern America. Ever distrustful of the abstract thinking which allows human beings to justify unspeakable horrors, Bellow focuses once again on the importance of feeling and commitment as remedies for the spiritual disease afflicting the United States in the late twentieth century. Though these themes are familiar, several new features characterize this latest book: the use of large amounts of autobiographical material and a near obsession with the details of physical infirmity and aging. In its wedding of humor and intellectual content, Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories returns to the mood and style of Bellow’s works prior to The Dean’s December and the nonfictional To Jerusalem and Back (1976).
The most humorous, least autobiographical piece in this collection is the title story, a sixty-page novella in epistolary form. It is ostensibly a letter of atonement to a woman whom Herschel Shawmut, the narrator, believes he destroyed by a sarcastic remark thirty-five years earlier. In fact, the letter Shawmut writes is a confessional record of his life and family-business entanglements, with family disloyalty and moral redemption as its major themes. Episodic and digressive, “Him with His Foot in His Mouth” offers many literary allusions and reminiscences which allow Shawmut, and Bellow, to comment on a variety of subjects, ranging from professional jealousy in academia to the moral bankruptcy of American business. Lacking any real plot or structure, the story relies for its narrative thread on Shawmut’s recollections of the times his witty, devastatingly truthful remarks, aimed at those with power or influence over his life, altered his fate for the worse.
“An honest Jew,” Shawmut professes to model his letter on the work of Allen Ginsberg, a practitioner of confessional poetry aimed at total self-revelation and honesty. Here, Bellow uses Shawmut as a means of satirizing and commenting on those Jewish writers—besides Ginsberg, one thinks of Philip Roth—who, in their “excremental and genital literalness,” feed both their own vanity and the hateful fantasies of anti-Semites. Beyond this literary model, however, Shawmut most resembles Bellow’s own earlier fictional heroes, particularly Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day (1956). Like “Wilky,” Shawmut is neck-deep in troubles, many resulting from his gullibility as well as his sharp tongue. Trust in greedy, villainous relatives and in-laws has led to his being swindled. To avoid prosecution for crimes he did not commit and seizure of his few remaining assets, Shawmut has fled to British Columbia. Isolated and awaiting extradition, he is overcome by regret for alienating the one person who did not deserve the venom of his wisecracks: Miss Carla Rose, the retired college librarian to whom he writes his letter of atonement.
Both physically and morally, Shawmut is an exile in a self-seeking world. A modern intellectual and noted musicologist, he has given up pursuit of a false self, linked to material self-interests, to seek forgiveness and the spiritual content of his life. Bellow adroitly suggests the emptiness of material self-seeking by having Shawmut lose his profits from a successful music-appreciation textbook through investment in a defunct automobile-wrecking yard and salvage operation. He also supplies Shawmut with an instructor, Mrs. Gracewell, a character whose name aptly describes her role. Mrs. Gracewell, Shawmut’s Canadian landlady and a follower of Emanuel Swedenborg, talks to him about the withdrawal of the “Divine Spirit” from the modern world and the need for mankind “to bring back the light that has gone.” She is the one person to whom Shawmut listens raptly without the least “mischievous impulse” to belittle through sarcasm.
Wedding the spiritual message of his story to humor is Bellow’s great accomplishment. Shawmut is given to witty verbal attacks and comic portrayal of others as well as himself. One Professor Schulteiss is described bluntly as “a pain in the ass,” while a learned colleague of Shawmut, Professor Kippenberg, is pictured as having “eyebrows like caterpillars from the Tree of Knowledge.” Shawmut’s outraged moral sense, his dislike of conversation about money, and his incisive tongue lead him to ask a wealthy dowager if she will write her memoirs using “a typewriter or an adding machine.”
Unlike the pompous, self-satisfied people he verbally attacks, Shawmut is given to “comic self-degradation,” in keeping with the traditional Jewish role of the fool. In Shawmut’s self-portraiture, moreover, Bellow introduces a major theme in this collection of short fiction: physical disease and the consequences of aging, the humiliating and troubling signs of mortality. Shawmut describes himself as a man in his sixties beset by hypertension, cardiac problems, arthritis, and periodontia. Physically resembling a “camel,” he is “high-waisted and long-legged” and particularly “susceptible to paradoxical, ludicrous images of himself.” It is precisely because of the clarity of his vision that Shawmut recognizes the spiritual emptiness of modern American life. Eddie Walish, the former colleague who has waited thirty-five years to accuse Shawmut of destroying Miss Rose, is a chameleon, always youthful and avant-garde because he lacks loyalty to anything. Philip, Shawmut’s brother, is a “rich man” forced to do “queer things” to maintain his “false positions.” His “adolescent children” have become uncommunicative “rednecks.” Disavowing his past and family ties, Philip lives on a sterile Houston estate, a “monument” to “failed entrepreneurs” and the antithesis of the ethnic Chicago neighborhood where he grew up. Philip’s wife also offers an opportunity for cutting commentary on American life. A breeder of pit bulldogs, she feeds her avarice by raising animals whose sole purpose is to kill. That the market for such dogs exists, Shawmut observes, is indicative of “the mood of the country” and adds “curious lines to the spiritual profile of the U.S.A.” Wedding wit and puns to this spiritual portrait, Shawmut comments that since “the line between man and other animals” is rapidly blurring, “at this rate, a dog in the White House becomes a real possibility. Not a pit bulldog, certainly, but a nice golden retriever whose veterinarian would become Secretary of State.”
“What Kind of Day Did You Have?” the long novella at the center of Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories, is the least comic and the most clearly structured of the stories in the collection. It records one day in the life of Victor Wulpy, a noted essayist, speaker, and art critic, and his mistress, Katrina Goligher, a divorced housewife from the suburb of Evanston, Illinois. The plot centers on the love relationship of Wulpy and Trina, her journey from Evanston to Buffalo to meet Wulpy, and their difficult return flight in a dangerous winter storm. As in “Him with His Foot in His Mouth,” the physical infirmities of age and the spiritual decline of civilization are prominent themes.
Based on the art critic and historian Harold Rosenberg, Bellow’s late colleague at the University of Chicago Committee for Social Thought, Victor Wulpy is a man near death. “A world-class intellectual” and “major figure in the art world,” he is an expert on a range of topics from modern painting to Charles Baudelaire and Marxism. Still, his intellectual status and learning do not free him from sexual longings nor save him from physical disease and approaching death. For most of his life, he has suffered from a knee injury requiring constant drainage and the use of a cane. A few months prior to the time covered by the novella, Wulpy underwent surgery for the removal of an abdominal tumor. Though near to death, he survived. Now this man, whom Bellow describes as having “associated with André Breton, Duchamp, the stars of his generation,” depends on Trina for sexual favors that temporarily resurrect and comfort him. Indeed, Trina is “his manifest Eros” temporarily forestalling the approach of Thanatos.
Like Shawmut in “Him with His Foot in His Mouth,” Wulpy is aware of the senselessness of modern civilization, especially as it manifests itself in the endless numbers of people trying to impress him with their theories. He also has intimations of a spiritual or metaphysical basis of experience. “Cryptic persistent suggestions” come to him: “The dead are not really dead.” Ideas, which Wulpy had previously thought of as his creations, have their own reality, “already created.” He is haunted, moreover, by “underground music,” the soft music of death signifying the departure of “the god Hercules.” Clearly, though not facing the legal and financial troubles of Shawmut, Wulpy is preparing for the...
(The entire section is 3880 words.)