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The Getaway Artist

COLLECTED STORIES, By Saul Bellow, Viking: 442 pp., $30

January 20, 2002|LEE SIEGEL

If society knew what was good for it, Saul Bellow would be in jail. For behind the great fortune of Bellow's imagination lies the idea of crime. Along with writers from Andre Gide to Isaac Babel to Norman Mailer, Bellow likes to toy with an analogy between lawbreakers and art makers; he sees both the criminal and the artist as original, elemental personalities. Crime as a motif runs through "Collected Stories" like a bright green thread, most strikingly in "A Silver Dish," one of several masterpieces included here.

After his father's death, Woody Selbst reexamines his own divided life. The product of a British-Jewish mother who became a fanatical Christian convert and a Polish-Jewish father who left Woody's mother for a married Catholic named Halina, Woody occupies two worlds.

Woody recalls a day in his adolescence when Morris, his father, reappeared and told him a tale about how he desperately needed money to pay back Halina, who had stolen $50 to help Morris out. Bring me to Mrs. Skoglund, Morris says--a rich, suppressive fundamentalist Christian who is Woody's patron--and together we'll ask her to lend us the money. Woody knows that there's something rotten about the story, but he and his father travel through a Chicago snowstorm to old Mrs. Skoglund's palatial home. After hearing their story, Mrs. Skoglund decides she needs to be alone for a few moments to ask God for guidance. As soon as she's gone, Morris declares (wrongly) to Woody that she'll never give up the money, and he grabs an expensive-looking silver dish from a cabinet and stuffs it down his pants.

The image serves a remarkable purpose. Throughout the story, Bellow vividly describes church bells ringing: "The last of the bells still had the bright air streaming with vibrations." Silver is the stuff of spiritual bells and, by having Morris shove Mrs. Skoglund's dish next to his groin, Bellow fancifully weds spirituality to libido. After all, Bellow describes Morris, a con man and thief, as a man who is "vital and picturesque," an advocate of "real life and free instincts, against religion and hypocrisy."

Morris maddens and exasperates Woody, but Woody loves him above anyone else; he crawls into his father's hospital bed and holds the old man as he dies. "Pop divided himself. And when he was separated from his warmth, he slipped into death." Perhaps we are all dead when we separate ourselves from our warmth, from the part of us that steps, for the sake of life, beyond law and convention.

Crime in literature has something to do with the desire of sensitive bookish male authors, their ambition sheltered and fueled by tender, maternal affection, to triumph over an untender and unmaternal world. In Bellow's art, however, the bookish son's alter ego is also the quiet outsider, expelled to society's margins by exotic aspirations that flow from peculiar gifts. Such a figure's toughness expresses itself through guile more than through physical force. The type of criminal that inhabits the core of Bellow's imagination is not the man who has the capacity to injure or kill but the man who takes chances that defy social habits and routines; not the murderer or violent burglar but the gambler and the con man.

In his passionately intelligent introduction to this volume, James Wood writes that "Bellow's characters all yearn to make something of their lives in the religious sense." Yet Wood is also keenly aware of Bellow's joy in sensuous worldly intensity. Bellow's characters, in fact, yearn to make something of their lives in a world where religion is insufficient for living a modern life. They wish to make sense of their own selves, while religion leads one away from the self. The gambler recasts his identity every time he does or doesn't beat the odds.

It's too bad that this wonderful, indispensable book does not quite live up to its claim of being the "collected" stories. Several tales have been left out that would have sharply illuminated Bellow's development as a writer, and one of them, "Two Morning Monologues," captures Bellow's obsessive identification of crime with imaginative freedom.

Appearing in Partisan Review when Bellow was in his late 20s, the story concerns a young man who finds himself at loose ends, lacking a job and a conventional purpose in life. In his first monologue, he labors under doubt and hesitation, waiting for his inertia to blossom into an exceptional destiny. His second monologue carries a much different tone. Unfolding crisply in the idiom of the gambler or the con man, it is a crackling rumination that celebrates risk and danger and flies in the face of convention.

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