The Actual by Saul Bellow, Viking 1997

Reviewed by Paul Lowinger, M.D.


You'll like this geriatric romance in which an old geezer, Harry Trellman, semi-retired at 57 returns to Chicago after having made his fortune in Rangoon and Guatemala City to look for Amy Wustrin, his old flame from high school. He's loved her secretly for forty years while other women remained "apparitions." Amy is the victim in an "ugly divorce" from Jay, Harry's best friend and soon afterward Jay dies and she becomes an upmarket decorator. They are brought together by Harry's new friend, 92 year old Sigmund Adletsky, a "heavy money Yid" billionaire in the style of the Shah of Iran or munitions maker Basil Zaharoff. At the end Harry proposes marriage to Amy at Jay's graveside.

There is something embarrassing about our 82 year old Nobel laureate in literature reinventing Danielle Steel. There is even a sort of bodice-ripping when Harry gets invited to shower with Amy and Jay and then Jay leaves them alone.

Of course, there is a spiritual counterpoint. Harry is trying to find his personal authenticity called The Actual in his connection to Amy. For Bellow, The Actual is mostly out of reach for his anti-heroes, the young and amoral Augie March in an early book or later Herzog, a failed midlife academic. Harry's search for The Actual is like the quest of Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment or Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses.

Harry faces his trials and tribulations with irony in the upper middle class of Northside Jewish Chicago. He is sent to a Jewish orphanage because his mo ther is an invalid but maybe she's really a hypochondriac; he has rich uncles but his father is a "simple carpenter" of no consequence; he looks like a "Chink or a Jap;" he has a shady career dealing with antiques and maybe the CIA in Southeast Asia and Guatemala; his emotions are in storage; and he observes life as an outsider rather then as a participatant. Harry's racism, disdain for people and male chauvinism are like the tips of some of Bellow's own icebergs.

There are some vivid scenes in the novella especially the exhumation of Jay, Amy's ex-husband from a grave that is meant for Amy's senile father who will need it soon. Jay was buried next to Amy's deceased mother so he has to move to another grave. Observing this on a snowy March day from a stretch limo, Amy and Harry rekindle their love. But the dialogue blurs when Harry explains to Amy that the delighted screams of her adulterous sexual climax he had heard on an audio tape are The Actual. I wanted to argue with Harry who is telling the story or the author that this metaphor for The Actual is a shallow one. But when he renamed it An Actual Affinity, I realized the author is not Danielle Steel but Woody Allen.

It's a good humored one hundred pages and I enjoyed the language and tone of the narrow Northside Chicago enclave where I grew up a few years before Amy and Harry.