The International Writers Magazine: Lives Lived
Saul Bellow - The Biography
I am sunk into Zachary Leader’s biography of my uncle, Saul Bellow, and all my relations like a man whose whole life flashes back to him in the instant before his death (and believe me, I don’t wish to tempt fate).
The least I can say is that Doctor Leader has gotten a lot of things off my chest for me. People always asking me about my family and other boring stuff. How should I know? I have been running away from Family Values and other people’s values all my life. I’ll figure things out for myself, thank you very much. Now, if people ask me if I have any brothers, cousins, I can just tell them, “read the book. Read James Atlas’ book. Check me out on Google and you get plenty of stories, videos, etc. Basically, my life is an open book, literally, so I Don’t Have To Show You No Stinking Badges!” I only ever wanted to be considered on the basis of my artistic talent and hard work.
My father, Morey Bellows, himself gets an entire chapter in the biography. Basically it portrays him as the divine inspiration for all of Saul Bellow’s literary vision. Not too shabby! My father epitomized Chicago Animalistic Jungle Behavior that set off a firestorm of imagination in Saul Bellow’s brain.
I deserve to share in the glory too. Everybody who believes that sons pay the price of their fathers’ sins now has to concede the reverse: I get to cash out on my father’s and my uncle’s glory, if only in the literary world. Who has a greater literary pedigree than I? That’s why racehorse sperm is so expensive, because talent is inherited.
I am totally dragged down by the endless freakin anguished soliloquies about Becoming An American. As Anna Wintour once put it about fashion, “You either know it or you don’t!” I am currently living in New York City, which is about one-third immigrant, and it’s painful to see MF’ers contorting themselves to blend in to some kind of Chuckie Cheesesteak smiley face. The result resembles a pair of cheap knockoff designer jeans. The acid test for determining Americanism is an accurate knowledge of baseball (admittedly, that takes in a lot of Koreans, Cubans etc. ha-ha!)
But the old-timey,bohunk, If I Were A Rich Man characterization of freakin ghetto life depicted with such loving devotion by my uncle is enough drive anybody into an volcanic mood, and that’s why my father said, “If that’s civilization, then fuck it! I would prefer to be an animal in the bush”. So he devolved into “Planet of the Apes” (who knows how much of this served as inspiration for “Henderson The Rain King”?), ripping his mother-in-law’s cheap housedress off her back right at the dinner table, because he couldn’t stand to look at that lame shit anymore! (all this taking place in front of a dinner guest, I might add). A lot of grotesque Chicago family behavior takes place at the supper table. I had my share of those tendencies too, as a kid, and the only thing that saved me from a life of equivalent idiocy was that I went to live in the French-speaking world and was able to reconfigure myself.
I am already anticipating being asked, “Why did you write all that ghastly hate mail to Saul Bellow?” Well, I’m Glad You Asked That Question! Saul Bellow is the only one of those pricks I could get ahold of. Back in those days you couldn’t just locate people anywhere in the world with a click of a computer mouse. If you wanted to find somebody, you had to hire an expensive investigator, and I wasn’t about to pay a fortune of money just to find my raggedy old father. I felt I had a right to complain and, believe me, I would have preferred to curse out the object of my revulsion, man-to-man. Geez, I would have loved that! Saul Bellow, owing to the stationary nature of his monumental fame, was a target of convenience. And, anyway, he was close enough to the facts of the case that I considered him an accessory. He could easily have deflected me at any time by just supplying me with my father’s address, which he declined to do, so fuck him!
At the time of this, I was totally wrapped up in creating a comedy act modeled on Richard Pryor, Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper. So, nasty, satiric language was my weapon of choice. I didn’t owe Saul Bellow any less than my worst shot, the same as he didn’t feel he owed me any consideration either.
Anyway, Saul Bellow created a new technique in “Herzog” of one-way correspondence to dead philosophers, and it blew him up into a world-wide literary phenomenon, so all I did was play his own shit back on him, with a little Richard Pryor added, to make it nice for me.
And now for reality USA:
|Where is Roger Corman now that we need him! If Hollywood’s legendary producer of low-budget, Grade-B movie entertainments, creator of such classic masterpieces as “Hell’s Angels on Wheels”, “Riot on the Sunset Strip” and “Little Shop of Horrors”, still reigned from high atop the Hollywood Hills, a script would already be in development and shooting scheduled for an upcoming featured dramatization of “Texas Biker Wars”, which would portray the bloody, multi-sided battle between several hundred motorized gangsters outside a Waco roadside bar.
I inherited my uncle’s interest in writing. But at the same adolescent stage of development as Saul Bellow when he was a teenager intent on imitating Wordsworth and Coleridge, I was writing nasty little biker stories depicting a takeover of the country by marauding biker gangs, along the lines of “Wild in the Streets”, another bullshit sleezebag production about America being taken over by acidheads who then intern their parents in concentration camps and force feed them with massive doses of LSD.
This tendency toward full-blast, pedal-to-the-metal vicarious madness has never left me, and my heart leaped with joy at the news of a massive gangster explosion on the highways of Texas. Think about it! This could be America’s answer to Romeo and Juliet. Maybe the shootout grew out of a star-crossed romantic liaison that created a conflict between rival gangs. You got a story right there!
Basically, the bloody shootout that takes place at the end of the movie is enough of a coat rack to hang on as many coats and hats as time will allow, with a sound track of Tex-Mex Freddy Fender-type barroom tearjerker ballads, Narcocorrido drug trafficker tribute dance music, nasty Mexican rock songs, anywhere you want to go. Once you have got a story line and a rockin soundtrack, you get to populate the movie with the most evil-looking people in Hollywood, the uglier the better! I’m thinking Danny Trejo in “Machete Kill”. Man, you won’t have no shortage on that front. Cinema may be the Seventh Art, but it is first of all a visual medium, so you want to smash the public with jarring, graphic impact. Lots of ugly, nasty dudes astride massive two-wheeled armored vehicles wearing spiked helmets and bandoliers of ammo strapped onto their bare chests, hauling around bad-ass biker mamas with their own big chests and wielding brass knuckles, such as I portrayed in my novella “The Third Eye of the Needle”, the story of a 3-eyed mutant girl, also from Texas, who becomes a Paris fashion model and ends up as an Indian Bollywood cinema sensation, performing in movies with singing, dancing orangutans (I’m not kidding. You can purchase this literary chef d’oeuvre on Amazon).
And the best emotional satisfaction of the movie comes at the very end, like the cavalry charge in John Ford’s classic western, “Stagecoach”, when the riot cops thunder in on even bigger tanks to arrest the whole army of bloodthirsty thugs and restore order.
So you see, I have never given up on my dreams of sensationalistic nonsense. The only difference today is, why go all the way to Paris when we got everything you need right here in the USA, including nasty Mexicans! And the best part of it? At the end of the show you get to say “This Movie Is Based on True Events”.
Empire of Fascination
“Fuck You if You Can’t Take A Joke!” is the last thing the Russian mystic, Rasputin, reportedly told the gang of czarist nobles who had poisoned him, strangled him, stabbed him, shot him and thrown him into the Neva River to drown.
My grandfather, Abraham Belo, must have said the same thing as he rotted in a czarist jail, serving a two-year sentence for living illegally in St. Petersburg, which was off-limits for Jews, and possessing/trafficking forged identity papers. I have the same instinct: you don’t have to follow rules or laws which are specifically designed to keep you behind the 8-Ball.
Belo made a good living as a vegetable importer before he was ratted out to the cops, living splendidly and sending money back to his homies in Byelorussia, and when he got in a jam they got him sprung from prison and spirited out of the country with a big bankroll to get him started in Canada, where he already had three sisters to meet him at the dock when his ocean liner landed at Halifax. Contrary to the historical stereotype of raggedy, bent-over Jews presenting themselves like beggars at Ellis Island, the Bellow family arrived to these shores in relatively good order, in a private (budget class, sure, but not in steerage) stateroom which accommodated Abraham, his wife, Liza, and three kids, and laden with steamer trunks and lots of cash.
They settled in Lachine, Quebec, an industrial suburb of Montreal, where Bellow set about trying to make a fortune without having to work for it, as he had in Russia. It begs the question: possessing a fat money belt stuffed with cash and a close family support network to back him up, why was Abraham Bellow not able to construct a prosperous life in Montreal, where so many hundreds of thousands of immigrant Jews were able to succeed so admirably? How was he able to flunk out in a city that has been historically a gold mine for millions of Jewish people?
He blew through the money in record time. Not that he didn’t have opportunities. He went in with two partners and obtained a government procurement contract to supply canvas bags to the Canadian military. Pretty easy, three seams and a hem. They rented a loft and a couple of sewing machines and hired two machine operators to sew the bags while the three bosses sat around and supervised. I knew plenty of contractors in Montreal, and they all started out by putting their hands on the goods themselves, only hiring operators as they grew, not sitting around with their feet up on the desk like the Prime Minister.
So, this gang of stooges lost the contract when the quality of the material and workmanship was judged to be inferior. Manufacturing is an exacting process, even for basic items, and it requires skill and application, not a gang of greenhorn Moustache Petes playing bigshot.
Speaking as a descendant of his, Abraham Bellows was a bit of a spoiled Jewish Princess, if you ask me. He didn’t come to this hemisphere as a victim, really. He had sisters waiting for him at the dock, an apartment and job prospects. The dirty nature of the work put him off. He had never done a lick of work in his life back in the old country. He got everywhere by deal-making and connections. His family seems to have been relatively well-to-do, and his wife’s family also had some money. In St. Petersburg he had set himself up as an importer, and who knows what-all else on the side. If he were alive today, he would probably fit in great with the present gang of wiseguy oligarchs who are currently bleeding the place dry. As it is, he’s lucky he got out of Russia when he did, because history shows that the later Bolshevik system had little place for a person of his particular qualities.
Speaking as a person who probably shares a common synaptic tendency of electrical brain impulses, I figure that he believed that he would set himself up the same way over here the same way in no time, that's how I see it. Hell, the same rules apply here as anywhere else, no?
No. Over here we have got the Exclusionary Rule, which cuts you out of the action if you’re a dumb, illiterate greenhorn of a jackass who can’t speak a word of English. Anybody grounded in reality hoards his cash and takes whatever work that is available, backbreaking work, grocery work, factory work and keeps bread on the table that way until something more promising turns up. Belo wouldn’t work. He was determined to let his money work for him, right up until it ran out.
The New World can break the balls of even the most talented Russian. I don’t mean Sergei Brin, who grew up here, but the Manhattan job market is saturated with former Soviet rocket scientists who are fighting over office temp jobs. In the 1986 boxing movie “Streets of Gold”, Klaus Maria Brandaur is entirely miscast (pathetic musculature) as a former championship Soviet boxer who defects to the west when he is refused a spot on their national team because he is Jewish. In New York he falls on hard times, reduced to the level of a drunken bum sleeping on the sand at Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. “In Russia, I lived like an American, “he laments, “and in America I live like a Russian!”
Having given up on manufacturing, Bellows bought a farm in Quebec’s now-exclusive Eastern Townships, figuring that he might give farming a go. Coming from the Jewish pale of settlement in Byelorussia, he probably had some familiarity with farming techniques, at least in theory. But somehow I can’t see this dandified guy pushing a plow.
But it was all moot anyway. Grandma revolted against the whole experience because there were no Jewish people and no synagogue. In addition, they were living in an isolated farmhouse, with things howling outside their door at night. So the family caved in to despair. This is the thing that upsets me most. Jewish people are great at agriculture. Look at how Israel thrived for so many years just on agriculture!
I’ll tell you another story. Just before World War II, Rafael Trujillo, the U.S.-installed dictator of the Dominican Republic, threw the immigration doors wide open to any European Jew who wanted to move there, partly as a tactic to revitalize the economy and partly (and I apologize for mentioning this) to counteract the effect of Dominican/Haitian intermarriage, which he felt was overwhelming the racial characteristics of the native Taino ethnicity. Most refused the offer. Like my grandparents, they refused to consider the idea of getting their hands dirty, and surrounded by barbaric tropical natives. The few thousand Jews who went out on a limb and made the leap went into the dairy business and within a few years became very wealthy, eventually migrating en masse to Miami, while the millions of stay-at-home people perished in the Nazi Holocaust. In the meantime, if you visit the town of Sosúa, on the DR’s north coast, there is a Jewish museum of the whole Dominican Jewish experience, in addition to a neighborhood of large houses built in 1930’s Bauhaus style, and even a Goethe Institute, reflecting the naïve homesickness felt by the several thousand exiled German Jews.
It’s unfair to judge events that took place a hundred years ago, but having spent twelve years operating my boutique in the very heart of Montreal, right on St. Catherine Street, I feel that I am entitled to express at least an informed opinion, and judging by the facts available to me, I have to say that my grandfather was entirely spoiled by the easy life he had lived in Russia prior to getting arrested. In Canada the Jews weren’t confined, and were encouraged to get out and mix it up with the rest of the population, but instead behaved like B.F. Skinner’s sheep experiment, crushing against each other even after the fence had been removed.
Oh, they’re not the only ones, but they are the focus for me. Our land of opportunity is also a land of missed opportunity, stifled by people’s own lack of initiative, by a psychological ball-and-chain forged out of their own self-acknowledged inhibitions. “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know”.
Liza Bellows would not consider farming in Valleyfield, Quebec, because there were no Jewish people or synagogues nearby. Well, how are you going to know whether or not you like it if you don’t take the leap? Anyway, I take a more elastic view of Judaism: if you were born to a Jewish mother, you’re in, period. That includes Elvis, whose mother, Gladys, was 100% Jewish and herself born of a Jewish mother.
I have an idea for a movie about a Jew who got left behind in the mass exodus of Dominican Jews to Miami because, being born in the DR, he grew up admiring the native population and ended up going native himself, changing his name from Heinrich Seltzer to Cristobal Benitez and racing motorcycles. One night he narrowly avoids dying on a mountain road, and he vows to devote his life to Jesus, becoming a wild, dreadlocked Pentecostal preacher with the snakes, voodoo chanting, trances etc.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, a right-wing Israeli government decides to bring back the ancient Hebrew monarchy as a unifying force for worldwide Judaism, and for tourism purposes. The government appoints an unassailable blue ribbon panel of experts, rabbis, geneticists, to investigate ancient Jewish bloodlines for a hereditary successor to biblical Jewish royalty.
Naturally, their investigation leads them directly to Cristobal, and, after a furious debate, the Israeli cabinet decides that it has too much credibility invested in the project, and a delegation of rabbis and army generals are forced to hack their way through the steaming jungle to his church, where Cristobal lives with monkeys and macaws in his house and wears a necklace of seashells. Cristobal, who is neither crazy nor stupid, agrees to their offer to make him King of the Jews, and he is ordained King Solomon the Second. One day, while riding in his limo, he sees two cops beating a black Ethiopian Jewish army recruit. He rescues the soldier and befriends him, meeting the soldier’s family and eventually falling in love with the guy’s sister.
Little by little, King Solomon reverts to his jungle ways, and he attracts the affection of Israel’s ethnic minorities, who feel excluded from the country’s European-inspired power structure. Basically, it’s a feel-good movie, with Jewish people kissing and hugging each other at the end, like a Beatles movie.
(Excuse me for leaving out the Palestinians, but that is another movie)
That is my concept of Judaism, a religion for bringing comfort and solace to people, without enforcing strict conformity and discipline under the command of bearded rabbis. For me, Elvis was a great Jew for synthesizing many great American cultures and advocating a philosophy of love and humanity. I have already been thrown out of the Jewish religion by a highly influential rabbi, in an email, and, guess what, it didn’t stick! I’m still Jewish.
After blowing all his money on a farm and on a manufacturing scheme, and stoutly resolute in his determination not to work, Abraham Bellows decided to try his hand at smuggling moonshine liquor into the united States, but he got hijacked and beat up for that. Then, and this is the most hysterical part, he decided to set himself up as a marriage broker. I love this part so much! Boy, do I take after this guy!
Dean's Dating Service
“Ladies and Gentlemen, are you tired of meeting an endless parade of misfits and pathological liars on the Internet? Boy, have we got a date for you! Come on down to Dean’s Dating Service, where we have got sixty marriage brokers in the back room to serve you, whatever your gender specifications. We can fix you up with a spousal partner to suit your desires, be that of a no-nuts Olympic pole vault champion or a fat-butt, no-brain reality TV personality. Come on down Saturday when we’ll be giving away free bronzed replicas of Caitlyn Jenner’s testicles, suitable for hanging on your car’s rearview mirror to anybody wearing an I Love New York jock strap!”
I would be a natural for that line of work! Never mind that. Finally, Abraham Bellow played out his string in Montreal, having absolutely nobody left to sponge off of (I presume). His old lady read him the Riot Act. The only relations he had left were some second- or third-cousins in Chicago so the family would move there, and Abraham would work his way up the hard way. It’s a good thing for Saul Bellow that these relations were not in Milwaukee or Akron, where there is no culture for an artist to draw from, where a childhood of cultural deprivation would have ruined him for life as a writer.
Fitzgerald wrote, “There are no second acts in American life”, but Abraham Bellows seems to have finally figured it out, considering that this was the Last Chance Saloon for him. He went down to Chicago, slept in the guy’s kitchen and put his back into the bakery job they created for him. In six months’ time, he was able to send for his family and move them into an apartment in a decent neighborhood, and the rest is history.
So, for me the Sixty-Four Dollar Question is, what if Abraham Bellows had figured it out earlier and had been able to make a go of things in Montreal, would the combination of circumstances and hereditary qualities have shaped my uncle to write the same quality of compelling prose about Montreal and Canada as he was able to do about Chicago? Chicago is a simpler subject for a writer. It has a short and straightforward history, with no complicated back story to tax the mind of the writer, unlike the Empire of Fascination that exists to the north, with its centuries-old history as the capital first of New France, then of British North America; the compelling history of Montreal and Quebec societies; the Two Solitudes of English and French, who lived side-by-side for centuries and no communication between them; the Quebec independence movements; the FLQ terrorist bombings, bank robberies and bombings; the dynamic political leadership of various historical Canadian leaders. The challenges of Canada’s voracious monolithic leviathan neighbor to the south. So many qualities that would require a lifetime to learn, never mind creating the epic, Margaret Mitchell-type treatment that it so richly deserves! It’s overwhelming, and the breadth and depth of the project is enough to discourage you from even starting.
The best book I ever read about Montreal was “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” by Mordechai Richler, which followed the same idea as “Augie March” a formulaic narrative of a man on the make. It’s an excellent book, but it is just a vignette and, like I say, somewhat derivative of my uncle. Canada is so big that you can easily get lost in it. And that is the beautiful attraction about Chicago for a writer – it was not too big and not too small. Just right.
© Dean Borok June 2nd 2015
Paris Blues Part Two
I don’t know how it is today, but when I was a kid in Chicago, a place like France wasn't on the map at all. If France ever entered the conversation at all, it was on a level of perfumed lace panties.