The story starts with a question, a large objective question directed by the author to the reader. “What do you do about death – in this case, the death of an old father?” We are introduced to the protagonist, Woody Selbst, rhetorically. He is “a modern person, sixty years of age,” and he lives in a chaotic world where death is a kind of public performance and the news of it is brought to us by the media, moment to moment, invoking “a global death-peristalsis.” Why should the small, private death of Morris, Woody’s father, matter? By starting with such broad statements of Woody’s time and place, Bellow prepares us to accept the sprawling narrative of Woody’s sixty years of life as rather small and specific in comparison. We will receive a great deal of information about Woody, but compared to the chaotic complexity of the world that surrounds him, the scope of a whole life is manageable, even pleasurable.
To tell us about that life, Bellow begins by using a mixture of exposition and scene in three sections, each punctuated by moments of attention paid to the church bells which are ringing out on a Sunday morning. Bellow as narrator gives us information about Morris’s death and expands the idea of peristalsis by providing it with an image, that of a crocodile that Woody once saw swallowing a buffalo calf when he was traveling in Africa. This is a long scene for this first section of exposition, which by contrast handles the introduction of a number of characters very quickly. We learn about Woody’s dilatory but useful education, his travels around the world, his occupation as a tile contractor. We learn about Morris’s amateur billiards career, Morris’s live-in girlfriend Halina and her son Mitosh, Woody’s mother’s conversion to Christianity, and his two unmarried sisters “in their fifties, very Christian, very straight, still living with Mama in an entirely Christian bungalow.” Bellow uses these tertiary characters to show how Woody’s understanding of time is tied up with a sense of responsibility. After his father’s death he avoids mourning by running errands for everyone he knows, including his own mistress and wife, neither of whom live with him. Beyond this ordinary time, Bellow also lets us know that Sundays used to be a day set apart for Woody, which he “devoted” to spending with Morris. When the church bells toll, this superficial layer of life and meanings is left behind. When Woody hears them he sits down in his “Japanese judo-style suit” to reflect on his father, and the rest of the story, to steal James Woods’ phrase, is “filtered through a remembering mind.”
The nature of the exposition changes. It is no longer directed by the author but by Woody himself. Even when we are learning about his childhood through scenes of himself and his father, the grown man, the wised-up man, is more present than the boy. The opposing forces of the story are introduced – Morris’s saturnine, elemental nature and the earnest, otherworldly nature of the Christian converts, a large society that is directed and funded by Mrs. Skoglund, a wealthy widow who lives in Evanston. Woody thinks about his boyhood self and articulates the fact that he “was leading a double life, sacred and profane,” under the influence of these two opposing forces.
The bells continue to ring and their action becomes the exact opposite of peristalsis. “The bell circle expanded over the whole of steel-making, oil-refining, power-producing mid autumn South Chicago, and all its Croatians, Ukrainians, Greeks, Poles, and respectable blacks heading for their churches to hear Mass or sing hymns.” It is the bells themselves that still keep the narration from narrowing to any single scene. Instead they move the story into a jumble of contrasts. Woody remembers himself as a seminary student in 1933, pulling a rickshaw at the World’s Fair and setting up dates with prostitutes for “the brawny red farmers – his boozing passengers.” Neither of the two opposing forces in his life are victorious, but jumbled together into his “one idea, nothing to do with these horny giants having a big time in the city: that the goal, the project, God’s purpose was (and he couldn’t explain why he thought so; all evidence was against it) – that this world should be a love world, that it should eventually recover and be entirely a world of love.”
Then the bells stop, their third mention in the story, and we enter the core of the story, the trip to Evanston that Morris and Woody take, during which Morris tricks Mrs. Skoglund into giving him fifty dollars and steals a silver dish from her house. Exposition is never wholly abandoned throughout the minutely described scenes that fill this part of the story. Bellow reminds us several times that it is still a sixty year old Woody, “fleshy and big, like a figure for the victory of American materialism,” who is doing the remembering, even if the character whom we are most centered on is the young and very poor Woody who wrestles with his father on Mrs. Skogland’s floor. Woody’s remembering is so accentuated at this point in the story that in several places third-person narration falls away, and the voice of Woody comes clear as if speaking: “He wanted me to be like himself – an American” and “Sure, they let us in.” After this scene the narration moves outward again, as if being regurgitated from a throat (the opposite of peristalsis). We are led back into exposition of Woody’s relationships with the larger cast of characters and to descriptions of his travels in Japan and Africa. Then the bells are mentioned again, reversing further the work of peristalsis, and the narration returns to Bellow’s own voice directly addressing the reader: “And you’d think that this jogging was an entirely physical activity, wouldn’t you? But there was something else in it.” But the story isn’t quite finished yet. It breaks its own structure at the end, not concluding with the narrator’s exposition but taking us back into Woody’s thoughts as a twenty year old, and then the scene of his father’s death, which he participates in as a sixty year old man. Woody is such a complete character at this point that he breaks through the bounds of narrative structure that have lent themselves to his creation and finishes the story on his own terms.