The Victim by Saul Bellow reminded me a little of the sadness, drabness and dinginess of other stories set in the 1940s, namely The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, The Pearl by John Steinbeck and a set of four crime novels by female writers, which included Laura by Vera Caspary, The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis, In A Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes and The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay. These are all good books which to some extent also reflect the difficulties of that era.
I haven’t read or heard of Saul Bellows prior to reading The Victim and chose to read this because it was a Penguin book. My theory is that I don’t usually go wrong with Penguin books!
The story follows Asa Leventhal, who was batching in New York City for the summer while his wife was visiting her mother in the south. It began with him being interrupted at his work as an editor at a trade magazine by an unexpected phone call from his sister-in-law to ask for assistance in a family emergency. Her young son was sick, and her husband, Asa’s brother Max, was away working in Texas. When Leventhal left work in the middle of the day, he felt judged by his boss for putting his personal concerns before his work. As Leventhal walked out of the office, he overheard his boss complaining that he was taking unfair advantage, “Like the rest of his brethren,” a slur on Jewish people which Leventhal resented but felt he couldn’t address.
Leventhal was judgemental of his brother’s situation when he arrived at his home. In Leventhal’s opinion the child should have been in hospital, the mother, who was Italian, was too emotional and superstitious (like the rest of her people), she didn’t look after her children properly, their home was a pigsty, and his brother, Max, should be at home where he was needed, instead of sending money home from Texas.
One hot evening soon after, Leventhal took a walk in a park and was accosted by a drunken man whom he knew slightly as a friend of a friend some time ago. Leventhal was horrified when the drunk, Kirby Allbee, accused him of ruining his life several years ago. As it happened, Allbee provided Leventhal with an introduction at his own workplace where Leventhal was offended during his job interview by anti-Semetic comments made by Allbee’s boss and he lashed out. Allbee claims that Leventhal’s behaviour cost Allbee his job which had a flow on effect to his entire life and cost him his marriage. Leventhal outwardly refused to take any responsibility and instead blamed Allbee’s drinking problem and unpleasant personality of being the cause of his own ruin, but privately, he wondered if he was guilty of Allbee’s charge.
Over the next few weeks Allbee continued to harass Leventhal, as Leventhal tried to cope with the worsening health of his young nephew, missing his wife and his own lack of confidence and propensity for making the wrong decisions in general.
Allbee claimed to be Leventhal’s victim, but Leventhal was as much and more of a victim than Allbee was. His Jewishness attracted bullies, as did his anxious, sensitive personality (which one came first, or if the two can even be separated, is impossible to know). I found it difficult to understand why Leventhal entertained Allbee and his bullying, aggressive, anti-Semitic nastiness at all, but I’m a privileged Australian woman from a different time and place who enjoys opportunities which would be equally as difficult for Leventhal to believe. The idea also struck me that victims and bullies are co-dependent, in that they need each other in order to exist.
The story is very well-written, but Leventhal’s lonely, guilt-ridden and angry personality and the austere setting left me planning to avoid novels written in the 1940s until I start feeling more hopeful again.