by Shelly Lowenkopf
A distinguished writing teacher and author, as well as the journal's poetry editor, Shelly will be presenting the novels that intrigued and mesmerized him into wishing to join the ranks of published writers.
For the longest time, I believed the first-person, “I” narrative was the literary equivalent of a snake-oil elixir, concocted in some uncluttered part of a con man’s garage, using any ingredients close at hand. First-person narrative would do anything and everything you wanted, no questions asked. All you needed was a lot of attitude and a modicum of story.
In support of this belief, I’d read and been bowled over by Huckleberry Finn, Great Expectations, and My Antonia.
Then I came upon The Adventures of Augie March, which sent me to the unused part of my work area with what I supposed were a respectable pallet of narrative colors. Warmed by my energetic response to Augie, I set forth on my own, attitude, story, and first-person narrator in hand.
This was still in the time of the typewriter, which meant I didn’t get away with pressing the select-all button, then hit the delete key, and that was that. I had a pile, perhaps a mound, of balled-up pages of eight-and-a-half-by-eleven manuscript pages, crumpled in varying degrees of frustrated choler. I had an immediate need to rethink.
From Augie I learned the necessity of a crisp, uncluttered vision of who “I” is beyond where this person went to school, what foods he or she doesn’t like, and how, on the most internal level, she/he negotiates the paths of existence.
With this vision in mind and heart, the writer sends the character out into the world on some quest or mission, something to run away from or return to, a no-nonsense, unequivocal goal: You want Dorothy Gale, aching to return to Kansas, Jean Valjean fleeing from Inspector Javert or, of equal thrust, Inspector Javert, determined to capture Jean Valjean.
A quest goal or vision statement will only carry you so far. No wonder then my mound of crumpled manuscript pages. The writer needs more than a backpack filled with tuna sandwiches to consider the ascent of K-2 or Mount Everest. The writer needs a thematic reference point as big in metaphor as the physical obstacle undertaken. What’s required here? The moral equivalent of saddling thirteen-year-old Huck with the consequences of slavery, or young Samantha, Bobbie Ann Mason’s fifteen-year-old protagonist of In Country to deconstruct the implications of America’s involvement in Vietnam. You need Pip, the Dickens protagonist from Great Expectations, being caught between the rock and hard place of social class, family, and the frightening loneliness of individual choice.
Another reading of Augie March and some research on Bellow reminded me of some of the background music I was hearing on my second read through. Bellow grew up reading Walt Whitman. A few hours return to The Leaves of Grass followed by a quick immersion in “Song of Myself,” and I heard the elevator music Bellow was hearing while he sent Augie March out on his epic ventures into the lands of discovery well beyond the one-size-fits-all textbooks left in classrooms as though they are bibles left in cheap hotel rooms.
Who better than Whitman for this son of immigrants, wishing to go at things freestyle, and “make the record in my own way, first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end, there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.”
Bellow was nudged and inspired by Walt Whitman; I could see and hear the influence in the cadences of the characters and themes in Augie. This made me aware of influences of my own, the persistent presence from D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature. “Stop looking to Europe,” Lawrence seemed to be telling me. “Listen to the voices of American writers.” Each time I reread Augie, I hear American voices. I hear Whitman. I hear Bellow, catching all the bursting ethnicity and combustions of energy, like a neighborhood market day.
Still resonating from these raucous, bawdy, sometimes Machiavellian voices resonating in The Adventures of Augie March, I set keel to breakers on my own picaresque journey, where writing led to reading the work of others more closely in order to see the gaps and missing nuances in my own.