Family fiction and the fiction-of-ideas: these are the two competing concerns in Bellow's recent work--with the combination at its most problematic in his last novel, The Dean's December.
Here, however, in five shorter works from the past decade, those seemingly contradictory roles--the darkly comic memoirist, the thorny essayist--are on more rewarding display, occasionally even blending in a richly charming way. One story, "A Silver Dish," already much-anthologized and much-acclaimed, is the memoirist/family side of Bellow, virtually undiluted: a 60-year-old South Chicago businessman reacts exuberantly to the death of his old father--in a memory-montage that showcases Bellow's boisterous, visceral, ironic warmth. ("How, against a contemporary background, do you mourn an octogenarian father, nearly blind, his heart enlarged, his lungs filling with fluid, who creeps, stumbles, gives off the odors, the moldiness or gassiness, of old men. I mean !") But, in other pieces, chunks of zesty family/friend reminiscence and personal psychology are shaded with cultural musings or implications. The brief, fragmentary "Zetland: By a Character Witness" recalls the early life (1920s, 1930s) of a Chicago intellectual/bohemian, rebelling against his old-fashioned Jewish family; the subtext is a gently mordant view of all intellectual idealism. In "Cousins," the narrator is a law-expert/celebrity (creator of TV's Court of Law) who uses his influence to get a light sentence for his gangster-cousin Tanky; here, the inability to "extricate myself from the ties of Jewish cousinhood" leads to memories of other cousins (including one philosopher), to anthropological puzzles, to the conflict (within a family or within a single personality) between the "brainy" and the gutsy. And most effective of all in the weaving of earthy tale-spinning with meditation is the title story: narrator Harry, a 65-ish musicologist who's hiding out (from big legal troubles) in Vancouver, is writing an apology to the long-ago victim of one of his many cruel wisecracks; he recounts the Balzac-like money/family mistakes which got him into his present mess; and, without strain or contrivance, this confession/self-analysis winds through such oddly relevant matters as Allen Ginsberg, the breeding of pit bulldogs, music vs. materialism, and Jewish assimilationism.
Unfortunately, the longest piece here--the novella-length "What Kind of Day Did You Have?"--is the least successful: the affair between a youngish divorcee and a famous old art critic becomes an uneasy frame for wrestlings with Marxism, celebrity, and intellectual hucksterism. But much of this welcome gathering presents the restless Bellow voice in full cry--taut, colorful, Talmudic, and large-hearted.?