THE DEAN'S DECEMBER by Saul Bellow
Kirkus Star

THE DEAN'S DECEMBER

KIRKUS REVIEW

Rich yet dry and static, Bellow's somber new book (his first as Nobel laureate) is often more essay than novel: a wintery meditation on death--a death in the family, the death of American cities, the death of the planet--as filtered through the mind of Albert Corde, one of Bellow's least vivid or particularized alter egos. Former full-time journalist, now dean at a Chicago university and devoted husband of astronomer Minna, Corde spends this December in Bucharest--where Minna's beloved mother Valeria (a government Health Dept. official who fell out of favor) is dying in a state hospital. And this very life-sized death--height-ened yet softened by the family's fierce love for Valeria--unnerves Corde as he first tries to break through the hostile Bucharest bureaucracy (hospital visits are cruelly restricted), then helps to handle the unlovely details of Valeria's funeral. But, throughout, more of Corde's mind is on the wrangles he has left behind in Chicago, both of which involve his Jeremiah-an (arguably racist) view of dying American society. There's the trial of two blacks for the iffy murder of a student--a trial which Corde pressed for despite his radical nephew's noisy opposition. (Moreover, another crude relative--cousin Max--is the colorful defense attorney at the trial.) And there's the brouhaha over Corde's articles in Harper's, nakedly realistic articles which paraded the horror of US cities (Chicago in particular), the "doomed" future of the "black underclass," the moral bankruptcy of the media and academia. ("Liberals found him reactionary. Conservatives called him crazy.") One reader, however, is powerfully impressed by the articles: an eminent scientist who has made some startling findings ("Crime and social disorganization in inner city populations can all be traced to the effects of lead") and wants Corde--who's intrigued but dubious--to bring this lead-is-killing-the-planet message to the world at large. Thus, Bellow here (as in Mr. Sammler's Planet) puts death under a microscope that has a slippery magnifier: the focus slides from personal to cosmic and back, with due notice of the drawbacks involved in this sort of whole-earth existentialism. (Minna snaps: "I tell you how horrible my mother's death is, and the way you comfort me is to say everything is monstrous. . . ." Corde answers: "The only excuse is that I'm convinced it's central. That's where the real struggle for existence is. . . .") But, while all of Bellow's later novels have thrived on just such a tension between philosophical discourse and juicy portraiture, this time the juice is sternly monitored, with only brief, occasional flarings-up of comic, scene-making brilliance. And, though Corde does reluctantly consider the self-destructive psychology behind his dour doomsday-crusade (an old chum, now a slimy syndicated columnist, analyzes Corde's behavior, then stabs him in the back), the character is neither fully-fleshed enough nor dramatically propelled enough to stand apart and free: the recurrent feeling that Corde is merely the author's mouthpiece (there's a strange ten-page slip into the first-person at one point) provides a provocative, but ultimately unsatisfying, subtext. Finally, in fact, apocalyptic sociology seems not to suit Bellow (as it suits, for instance, Walker Percy): the novel picks up more of the "hot haze" of Corde's angst than the sharpness of his uncompromising world-view; the issues don't bring forth the essential Bellovian passions. But, if this is lesser Bellow, it certainly displays all his paragraph-by-paragraph greatness--the gravely exuberant, not-a-word-wasted style; the wide-ranging powers of observation; the Talmudically restless intelligence. And every page of it commands the attention.
Pub Date: Feb. 7th, 1981
ISBN: 0140189130
Publisher: Harper & Row
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1981




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