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...
(The entire section contains 3950 words.)
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