Picks and Pans Review: More Die of Heartbreak

updated 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Saul Bellow

Great expectations always precede the publication of a new novel by Saul Bellow, Nobel prizewinning author of Henderson the Rain King, Herzog and other biting, insightful works. Those expectations are often fulfilled by this latest work, but it is tough going. Oh, it's brilliant in its observations about life, about aging, about women and men and marriage. And it's funny in places, hilariously so. But the characters are truly awful people. If you met them at a cocktail party, you'd run for the door. The narrator, Kenneth Trachtenberg, teaches Russian studies at a Midwestern university. He got the job because his uncle, world-class botanist Benn Crader, is a jewel in the school's crown. The two men are each other's best friends, confidants: "Well, we formed an understanding. On an elementary level, neither would let the other walk into a whirling propeller." What they share mostly are complaints about the women in their lives. Trachtenberg has a daughter by a woman who won't marry him. Crader's first wife is dead, leaving him at the mercy of one woman who's sex-starved and another who is rich and crazy. Then the older man falls into the clutches of the beautiful Matilda, willful daughter of a rich surgeon, and marries her. Matilda and her father set out to remold Crader in a style they find suitable: expensive tweeds, a huge apartment he can't afford and a plot to force him to regain money an uncle swindled from his mother. The narrator is an irritating busybody. Some of the sexual details are as grotesque as anything in Philip Roth's novels. (Are Bellow and Roth having a dirty-talk duel?) But More Die of Heartbreak is a valid, if distasteful, view of his world by a powerful writer. Once read, it can't be dismissed or easily forgotten. (Morrow, $ 16.95)

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