Oh, the wide world mourns the pope, mercifully prying the media spotlight away from the other meaningless horseshit (Schiavo, Jackson) that's planted to distract us from what's really going on (raising forever and again the question: Do they show us what we want to see? Or do they think we care about what they're showing us?) And as we sit in our smoky den digesting the last of our cheap whiskey and failing to give a shit, tragedy strikes; another of the Greats is gone. Saul Bellow is dead at 89.
It's not just that the man could define a whole character with a simple turn of phrase, or that reading any of his novels made you feel your own quotidian struggles melting helplessly into the innermost conflicts of the tortured souls he created. Yes, in his heyday he wrote with an ease and simplicity no living novelist dares approach. But the fact is that Bellow, one of the last of his contemporaries to go, represents much more now: He was part of a high point in American literature, in our culture, in the golden age of the mid-20th Century; one whose work was of a quality and character the likes of which we'll never see matched in our lifetimes. It wasn't just the brutal honesty that made Bellow's writing great; it was that he wrote at a time when people still gave a shit about books, when the cultural debate was still conducted by human beings responding to words, rather than empty shells absorbing cathode rays.
Much has been made of "Herzog" and "Augie March," both great novels of Bellow's; but we think if you want to instantly understand how Bellow touched the central nerve of the great comedic crisis that is this life, you needn't go further than "the Victim." It reads like the novel F. Scott Fitzgerald never had the balls to write, or the one DeLillo's been trying to tackle his whole lifetime. In our short-term cultural memory, what isn't taught in high school is quickly forgotten, and Bellow's death will relegate him to the dirty end of our cultural dustbin. But two thousand years from now, he, along with a few of his contemporaries, will be seen as one of the great writers of our long-dead civilization. And we're all the poorer for his passing.