June 11, 1984 12:00 PM

by Saul Bellow

In the title story of this new collection, the hero, a musicologist approaching 70, is in Canada because he is afraid he will be charged with a swindle committed in Houston by a relative. A friend has written him that once, many years ago, the musicologist destroyed a young librarian’s life by a thoughtless comment. This story is in the form of a letter, an abject apology to that librarian, including an account of all the other insults the musicologist has delivered to innocent people. He decides that only an insult from someone like Churchill is forgivable—”to be insulted by him guaranteed your place in history.” In another story, “What Kind of Day Did You Have?” a woman is having an affair with an ailing, elderly genius who knows everyone in the world of the arts. She may lose custody of her two small daughters to her angry ex-husband, and yet she is held in utter thrall by this mean old celebrity. Nobel laureate Bellow creates other sharply memorable characters—swindlers, a businessman, a brilliant student—in the five stories in this volume. The author is superb at the mocking jest, as when one of his characters says, “So there are sections of the country where brain softening is accelerated. And Southern California from the first has been set up for the maximum exploitation of whatever goes wrong with the American mind. They farm the kinks as much as they do lettuces and oranges.” Bellow’s people can be humorous but they are also self-centered and mean-spirited. If such people really exist outside of Bellow’s rarefied world, no one would want to know them. (Harper & Row, $15.95)

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