I read this for the first time about 25 years’ ago and it made an impression on me, although one that has blurred over time. I dimly thought of it as a rather bathetic book and, reading it again, there are elements of bathos. But it is a sad book, really.
First published in 1956, it describes a day in the life of a disappointed, dissipated and frustrated man called Tommy Wilhelm who lives in New York, in a hotel, in which his father lives as well. His father is disappointed, too, mainly with Tommy.
The story describes Tommy’s descent, from an already very low place, into what many would describe as a mental breakdown. He is not an attractive character; he seems weak, vacillating and self-pitying. But he is also very human, with frailties that feel familiar. He is easy to identify with, even though that only reminds us of our own weaknesses.
The consciousness through which the novel is wrought is Wilhelm’s. But Bellow is there too, observing, guiding, pointing things out for us. Like here:
“But at the same time, since there were depths in Wilhelm not unsuspected by himself, he received a suggestion from some remote element in his thoughts that the business of life, the real business – to carry his peculiar burden, to feel shame and impotence, to taste these quelled tears – the only important business, the highest business, was being done.”
The other characters in the book are sketched with a few deft strokes: the self-important and self-regarding father, the dismissive and tough-minded estranged wife, the eccentric and self-deluding Dr Tamkin. But Wilhelm is the only subject of the book, in all its misery and sadness.
Who said “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”? Oh yes, Henry Thoreau. Well, Tommy Wilhelm certainly does that, as brilliantly illustrated and described in words by Saul Bellow.