The Right Coast

April 11, 2005
A pretty good novelist but not a nice man
By Tom Smith

I think the novels of Saul Below are pretty good, if overrated. I doubt his reputation will last that much longer. I stopped reading him in the mid-70's or so. But I have a grudge against the man, and I'm not the only one. I didn't shed any tears when he died. Apparently he had a well deserved reputation for putting the personal tragedies and other events of people he knew into his books. I know lots of novelists do that, or so I gather from its being a standard gag in comedies about sophisticated New York literary types. When it really happens, however, it's not funny.

My wife's brother was murdered in a notorious home-invasion robbery in the 1970's that plays a prominent part in the plot of Bellow's novel The Dean's December. Mark Gromer, for whom my wife's and my youngest son is named, was an English Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago when he was killed by being thrown out of a window while he attempted to defend his wife against the killers. They had only been married a year or two. She did survive, but obviously her life was never the same. Nor was that of anyone in Mark's family. They did catch the man-and-woman robbery team. The woman rolled, and the man got something like 25 to life for felony murder. Every year, Jeanne's mom would write the parole board, asking that the killer be kept in jail. Jeanne's mom died a few years back. I don't know if Mark's murderer is still in jail or not. I think he belongs in the ground.

I did not know my wife or Mark when he died, but I was at their house when the New York Times arrived that had the review of Bellow's book. Bellow did not just borrow the story from the Chicago headlines; he was a friend of Mark and his wife. So the betrayal was personal. Not illegal, of course. Become the victim of a notorious murder, and your privacy dies along with your family member, just to salt the wound. It was heartbreaking to watch Jeanne's mom read the review, which included a passage describing the body of the murdered student, obviously Mark, on the sidewalk. There was her son, her life, spread out for the delectation of readers of the New York Times. How interesting. The look on her face was like somebody had plunged a knife into her heart. I will never forget it. I know this sort of thing happens all the time, but in my book Bellow is just the intellectuals' version of the journalist who thrusts a microphone in the face of a berieved mother, and asks "how does it feel?" It happens, but it is still wrong. It still makes Bellow an opportunist, exploiting grief he could only imagine, and then only imagined because it would help him build up his reputation as a great novelist. A great humanist. A man with such a big heart. One of nature's noblemen. That's why they call it fiction.