Augie and Simon attend a city college after graduating from high school. This is the great melting pot, the arm of democracy, where immigrants come from all parts “to undergo consolidation and become, the idea was, American.” Out of this mass of humble people arise some geniuses “spotted and stained” and “historians bred under pushcarts”—people who come from nowhere to be the experts and scholars of the world. Augie, however, doesn’t have any special ambitions, and anyway, he is working too much to devote much time to school.
Augie now works with Simon at a fancy department store. The boys make good money—Simon earning $15 a week and Augie $13.50. Since Mama is now practically blind and can no longer do housework, Simon hires a biracial woman named Molly Simms, around thirty-five years old, to stay with them. Later, he sleeps with Molly and then fires her. They hire a fat Polish woman to replace her.
Augie gets a lucky break when he is offered a job at a sporting goods store in the rich suburb of Evanston, Illinois. The owner, Mr. Renling, will pay him twenty dollars a week at first, and twenty-five plus commission when he is trained. Augie takes the job and moves to Evanston. The Renlings set out to “glamorize” Augie by buying him a wardrobe of beautiful clothing, and soon he becomes quite sure of himself, able to talk confidently to his upper-class clientele. Mrs. Renling, a petite, stylish lady of fifty-five who grew up among the aristocracy of Luxembourg, wants to groom Augie to be “perfect.” He even takes riding lessons, and at Mrs. Renling’s insistence, enrolls in evening courses at Northwestern.
Mrs. Renling thinks the girl Augie dates, a waitress named Willa, is too low-class for her protégé. Partly to get him away from Willa, she whisks Augie off to a fancy hotel on Lake Michigan, where she goes for mineral baths. There, Augie meets two stunning sisters, Thea and Esther Fenchel, heiresses to a family fortune. He falls in love with Esther, but when he asks her out, she rejects him coldly. Augie faints from the shock. Her sister Thea explains why Esther rejected him: it is because they both assumed he was Mrs. Renling’s gigolo. Augie is horrified. Thea then announces that she doesn’t care if he sleeps with Mrs. Renling or not; she is in love with Augie and that this won’t be the last time they meet.
Near the end of the holiday, Simon comes to meet Augie with his beautiful but vain girlfriend Cissy Flexner. They spend the day at the beach together, and Simon announces that he plans to marry Cissy.
The Renlings offer to adopt Augie as their son. He would live with them and inherit all their money. This seems like a golden opportunity for Augie, but he is afraid that it would be suffocating. He takes time off to consult Einhorn.
Einhorn now has a new mistress, a crippled woman named Mildred who fell in love with him after reading his newsletter, The Shut-In. Heavy and aging, Mildred nonetheless satisfies Einhorn’s need for female adoration. Einhorn merely says that the offer from the Renlings is extraordinary, and doesn’t help Augie much.
Ultimately Augie accepts a job offer from a former college friend, Clarence Ruber, and leaves the Renlings. In his new home on the South Side of Chicago, he is near Grandma’s home, and he goes to visit her. It saddens him to see how weakened and forgetful she has become. Yet she does remember Augie and seems to appreciate the visit. This is to be the last time he sees Grandma, as she dies of pneumonia that same winter.
Clarence is in a business selling rubberized paint, and he soon gets Augie out, in mid-winter, going around on streetcars trying to sell the stuff. Augie is miserable. He makes very few sales, and doesn’t earn enough to help support Mama.
While in this pathetic situation, Augie runs into Joe Gorman, the thief whom he helped with a robbery years before. He goes with Joe on a run up to Canada to pick up illegal immigrants. On the way, the police discover that Joe’s car is stolen. The police catch Joe, but not Augie. Augie wires Simon to ask him to send money, but when Simon fails to help, Augie is forced to hitch rides on trains all the way back to Chicago. On his journey, Augie mixes in with all the tramps riding the rails during these Depression hard times. Along the way he befriends a young man called Stoney and a tough, wolfish-looking man he dubs “Wolfy.” The three are arrested by the police, who mistakenly think they are part of a gang of thieves. Eventually they let Augie and Stoney go, but keep Wolfy, who is actually a thief. Augie is separated from Stoney and finally hitches a ride back to Chicago.
Augie returns to find trouble at home. Simon, desperate to get money so he could marry Cissy, has sold Mama’s apartment and all her furniture. She now lives downstairs with the Kreindls, in a small basement cell. Also, Augie learns to his great sorrow, Grandma has just died: “That was a shaft! It went straight and cold into my bowels, and I couldn’t bring up my back, or otherwise move, but sat bent over. Dead! ... My grates couldn’t hold it. I shed tears with my sleeve over my eyes.”
Simon is nowhere to be found, but Augie learns from talking to Einhorn that he is in a bad situation. He got involved in a gambling ring, and gangsters stole all his money and beat him up. Then Cissy Flexner left him for their boorish cousin, Five Properties, and plans to marry him next week. The police arrested Simon and put him in jail overnight when he started a riot at the Flexners’. Einhorn says that Augie should be glad, because now he’s in a better position than his brother. But Augie isn’t capable of being glad over someone else’s misfortune. Instead, overcome by the emotions of Grandma’s death and everything else, Augie breaks down crying. Einhorn offers him a place to stay until he gets things sorted out.
Augie gets Mama into a Home for the blind, pawning his clothes to help pay for it. He finds a new job at a luxury dog service. His boss is an eccentric Frenchman named Guillaume, and their clients are rich Chicagoans whose dogs Augie goes to fetch at mansions and lakeshore apartments. The fee to keep a dog at the service is twenty dollars a month, more than it costs to keep Mama at the Home for the blind. Augie smells of dog and often gets nasty looks on the streetcar.
Augie runs into his old classmate from college, a Mexican math genius named Manny Padilla. Manny shows Augie how to steal books for money. Soon he is doing well enough to quit the dog service. He spends hours reading the books before selling them.
Finally, Simon reappears. He reveals that he is plotting to marry a rich woman—a coal heiress named Charlotte Magnus. He plans to start up in the coal business as soon as he is married, and get Augie into it with him. Augie thinks it “cold-blooded” that his brother would go after a woman for her money, but Simon points out that most people who marry for love wind up miserable. Anyway, he won’t live off her money, but plans to work hard to make something for himself.
Augie moves into a student house on the South Side, near the University of Chicago, doing odd jobs for the landlord, Owens, to pay his rent. Clem Tambow visits him and shows off the money inherited from his father, who has recently died. Clem is now a psychology student at the university, and pressures Augie to do something better with his life than steal books for a living.
Clem’s real reason for visiting is that he has a crush on Augie’s neighbor, Mimi Villars, a beautiful, tough-minded waitress from Los Angeles. But Clem has no chance with Mimi; she is in a tempestuous relationship with Hooker Frazer, a graduate assistant in Political Science and one of Augie’s customers. Frazer often orders rare and out-of-print books that are difficult for Augie to steal. He offers Augie old Communist and Trotskyist papers to read and invites Augie to hear him lecture.
Augie reads the books he steals and is giving himself an education through them. Augie also listens to Mimi’s impassioned speeches and admires her gusto. Mimi maintains that women are no good and emasculate men with chenille rugs and parlor upholstery. She is not like that herself, but she does hold men to a high standard of intellectualism. She loves Frazer relentlessly and tries to make him suffer for it. The most important thing that she teaches Augie is a great truism of the world, the fact that “everyone sees to it his fate is shared. Or tries to see to it.” Humans cannot live in isolation, but are motivated by a desire to recruit others into our circle, into our way of life, as a way to justify our own existence. Augie more than anyone should understand this, as he has been “adopted” all his life by people who wanted precisely that, someone to share their fate.
Augie and Mimi grow very close, although not romantic. They have another friend in common, old Sylvester. Kicked out of the Communist party for his Trotskyite leanings, he now belongs to the Trotskyite party and lives in New York, working hard for a Soviet America-to-be. Sylvester’s party leaders send him home to Chicago on a mission to recruit Frazer. Meanwhile, Sylvester also stops off to visit Mimi, who happens to be the sister of his ex-wife. He wants Mimi’s help in winning his wife back, but she will have none of it.
In the past, Sylvester had tried to recruit Simon for the Communist party. Now, however, Simon is throwing himself into capitalism. He is already married to Charlotte and living with the family, although they won’t make the marriage public until they’ve had a big ceremony. Simon takes Augie to the dinner at the Magnuses’, a family of stout Dutch people who view Simon as a prince. He has remade himself into a man as regal as their old Grandma Lausch and as sparkling as the new ring on his finger. Augie fails to be as charming as his brother, but he makes a good first impression and catches the eye of Charlotte’s lovely dark-haired cousin, Lucy Magnus.
Simon and Augie spend a lot of time together now, and Simon tries to remake Augie in his image, taking him for a haircut and encouraging him to dress well. Simon has become powerful with the Magnuses and carries a big bankroll, but now he has to prove himself as a businessman. He leases a coal yard and gets Augie to work for him as an apprentice to the manager, Happy Kellerman. Augie and Happy drum up business for Simon, while Simon makes friendly with the local politicians and police. Simon has become violent and lustful, going after cheap women he wouldn’t have looked at before. Still, he does admire his wife. For her own part, Charlotte is an ambitious and brainy woman who appreciates Simon for his business ability.
Simon and Augie go to visit Mama at the home. Augie finds it a depressing place. Simon makes rude demand of the director and his wife, and flies into a rage when he sees that Mama is earning some extra money by making Roosevelt campaign buttons. “I’ll have you know that my mother isn’t going to do any piecework.... She gets all the money she needs from me,” he shouts at the director, scattering the pins on the floor.
Analysis of Chapters 8–11
Bellow’s novel is not a classic rags-to-riches fairytale, as Augie actually rejects the chance of riches when he leaves the Renlings, and will do so again. Neither is it a morality tale, in which the main character learns through trial and tribulation to be an honest man. Augie should have learned his lesson after his first escapade with Joe Gorman, but instead he gets involved with him again, is nearly caught by the police, and finally becomes a book thief. And although Augie educates himself by reading classic literary works and Communist pamphlets, this is not a novel about the making of a great man. Augie shows no promise of becoming either an intellectual or political organizer. He sees learning as something that takes place through the experiences of life rather than through formal education, and remains a political observer rather than a radical caught up with the others in the current of the times. Augie’s fate is something different, something as yet unidentified.
In his vagabond way, Augie wanders between different worlds. There is the world of the rich capitalists, inhabited by the Renlings and the Magnuses; there is the criminal and outcast underworld, represented by Joe Gorman, Wolfy, and the many other characters riding the rails; and there is the political and intellectual world, inhabited by Frazer, Kayo Obermark, and the bohemian thinker Mimi. Augie is an apprentice to all these ways of life, but remains uncommitted to any of them.
Bellow gives lively depictions of the various social milieux Augie inhabits. He shows us the dinner parties held by the aristocratic Mrs. Renling and the lifestyle of rich, tennis-playing heiresses at the seaside resort, but then he shows us the multitudes of tramps sleeping in a stinking heap inside a boxcar. Augie’s journey to Canada with Joe Gorman to pick up illegal immigrants, and his return by train, gives a wider picture of America during the Depression. Incidentally, Bellow himself was an illegal immigrant whose parents smuggled him into the U.S. from Canada when he was a child.
There is something “adoptable” about Augie. First, he was adopted by Grandma Lausch; then, it was Einhorn who took him under his wing. Next, Augie is taken in by the Renlings, who wish to adopt him as their own son and make a gentleman of him. But Augie resists. Although Augie is not actually sleeping with Mrs. Renling, as the Fenchel sisters assume, he is prostituting himself in a sense by selling himself out for money. This is why he rejects the chance to be adopted by them: he wants to be his own person. Simon, however, is willing to sell out, which he shows by marrying into the rich Magnus family. Simon admires Charlotte’s business sense, but he is not in love with her. In marrying Charlotte, Simon follows Grandma’s advice and chooses respect over love.
After Augie leaves the Renlings, Simon becomes Augie’s next important mentor, attempting to shape his younger brother into his image. Through Simon, the reader sees the person that Augie could be. Augie, too, has the chance to marry a rich girl and set himself up as a businessman. But Augie sees how the newfound wealth and power have failed to make Simon truly happy and have distorted his character. The stress of having to earn well makes him nearly suicidal at first, and he is growing fat, lustful, and prone to rages. It seems unlikely that Augie would choose to follow in his brother’s footsteps.