Dangling Man by Saul Bellow

This novella is unusual for Bellow in that the central character is not Jewish. There are Jewish characters, of course, but it is interesting to read a Bellow novel where Jewishness is not one of the dominant themes.

It is the story of a man waiting to be drafted into the US armed forces during the Second World War. He is Canadian, so has to wait while the paperwork grinds through the system and gives him a unit to join. This takes many months, and the book is written as his journal.

He is a man of left wing views and various episodes in the book revolve around his changed attitude to the rigid doctrines of the American left, as he now perceives them to be. Others capture his descent into unreasonablness, as the loss of his framework of established routine begins to undermine his sense of purpose and meaning.

Later in the book, ‘Joseph’, the protagonist, recounts his internal dialogues about the purpose of life, emphasising the feeling that he is losing is mind, at least a bit. He also gets involved in a couple of fights, in odd circumstances, and falls out with his (slightly shallowly portrayed) wife.

But the book is really about Joseph, who sees himself as, and indeed is, an intellectual. He reads a lot and his journals reflect his learning. But Bellow’s narrators always seem to be exceptionally well-read and able to range very widely in their analysis of ideas. That is a good thing, because it brings a richness to the book; but it also brings a slight air of contrivance, which can at times be irritating.

Overall, however, this is a very good, short read, with lots to say about the relationship between habit and meaning in life.


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