I'd been meaning to read some Saul Bellow for quite some time, and picked this one up on the dollar shelf at a now-defunct used bookstore. This is later-period Bellow (his tenth novel) and not one of the ones he is famous for, so I probably could have picked a better one to start with. Still, even though it had a rough start, I really grew to enjoy this psychological bit of fiction.
Our rather neurotic narrator, Kenneth Trachtenberg, grew up in Paris, the product of two Midwestern expatriates. His father is widely known for being irresistible to the ladies and quite a womanizer, while Kenneth is a relative dud in that department. In order to both flee from his father's reputation and to be closer to his beloved uncle, Kenneth takes a job as a Russian Literature professor in the Midwestern town where his mother's family is from (unnamed in the book, but I'm guessing Detroit). His uncle, Benn Crader, is a distinguished botanist who has an uncanny, almost psychic relationship with plants. Kenneth's aims are a little obscure (although he spends a claustrophobic hundred pages or so explaining them), but have something to do with making his life a turning point and translating Benn's understanding of plants into an understanding of humans: "As earlier stated, unless you made your life a turning point, there was no reason for existing. Only you didn't make, you found the turning point that was the crying need (unconscious, of course, as the most crying needs are) of humankind."
Once you get a little further into the book, the story expands into Benn's sudden marriage to Matilda, a beautiful woman with very wealthy parents who have manipulative plans for Benn that involve his estranged and very rich (and very corrupt and very old) uncle. Kenneth puts himself in the role of Benn's protector while simultaneously pining over the mother of his child (who left him for a snowmobile salesman in Seattle) and starting a relationship with a doting former student.
This book definitely has the same kind of east-coast, masculine, sex-obsessed vibe as Philip Roth, but while that can sometimes be a little trying, it isn't necessarily a bad thing. Bellow is often very funny, and the pay off in the narrative for his characters' obsessive traits makes it all worthwhile.
A few more quotes that I couldn't resist:
"Also, it would be against my rule of truthfulness to conceal the fact that I am fond of preposterous people. And what stunning offers you get from the insane!"
"I kept seeing Bethe's mask face, like human features painted on the sole of somebody's foot, and Teller like the atomic Moses coming down from Sinai with the Commandments on hydrogen tablets."
"Once you get into the erotic life, modern style, you are accelerated till your minutest particles fly apart."
[Also, I couldn't find a big enough version of the cover of this book that I own (and I was too lazy to scan it), but it really couldn't look more like a Danielle Steele cover and was apparently published in a series of bright romantic colors -- mine is a lovely turquoise.]