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NOVEL REFLECTIONS ON THE AMERICAN DREAM

SEIZE THE DAY: When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow. He'd once been an actor, no, not quite, an extra. And he had known what acting should be.

NARRATOR: Tommy Wilhelm, the subject of Saul Bellow's SEIZE THE DAY, is a man whose past is pock-marked by self defeating choices. His life is bereft of any achievement. He is a loser. But Bellow's fiction is not yet another jaundiced view of the American dream. Its goal is far different. To find redemption in America's story, to imbue the dream was something more than material success.

SEIZE THE DAY: "Oh, God," Wilhelm prayed, "let me out of my trouble. Let me out of my thoughts and let me do something better with myself."

MORRIS DICKSTEIN: Tommy Wilhelm is down to his last few hundred dollars. He's behind on his alimony and child support, his wife is pressing him, there are flashbacks which show us earlier failures on his part, such as the sojourn in Hollywood.

And we see the last 24 hours in the life of a man who is down to his last buck, but also who is down, who has depleted his spiritual resources.

NARRATOR: Tommy Wilhelm's problems -- his failings -- are not simply financial. Though those are substantial and pressing, what Tommy yearns for, what he misses most in his life, is the validating connection to another human being, especially with his austere, tight-fisted father.

SEIZE THE DAY: "I don't understand your problems," said the old man. "I never had any like them." By now Wilhelm had lost his head and he waved his hand and said over and over, "Oh, Dad, don't give me that stuff, don't give me that. Please don't give me that sort of thing." "It's true," said his father. "I come from a different world. Your mother and I led an entirely different life." ..."You can't compare Mother and Margaret, and neither can you and I be compared, because you Dad were a success. And a success is a success. I never made a success."

JAMES ATLAS SEIZE THE DAY is about really the tremendous pressure to achieve, the tremendous pressure to succeed.

And his father is a success, after a fashion, but at a tremendous price: the price of having destroyed his own family, having destroyed his own son. There's a ruthlessness to success. Success is not a happy experience.

SEIZE THE DAY "I wouldn't admit for one minute that I was lazy," said Wilhelm. "If anything, I tried too hard. I admit I made many mistakes. Like I thought I shouldn't do things you had done already. Study chemistry. You had done it already. It was in the family." His father continued, "I didn't run around with fifty women, either. I was not a Hollywood star. I didn't have time to go to Cuba for vacation. I stayed home and took care of my children."

Oh, thought Wilhelm, eyes turning upward. Why did I come here in the first place, to live near him? New York is like a gas. The colors are running. My head feels so tight, I don't know what I'm doing. He thinks I want to take away his money or that I envy him. He doesn't see what I want.


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The American Novel