In "Ravelstein," Saul Bellow's elegant and elegiac new novel, the title character and the narrator, Chick, talk a lot about the afterlife. It's a topic on which they disagree. Abe Ravelstein is a cranky philosopher whose best-selling philippic against the American university has, late in his career, made him a multi-millionaire. An avowed "atheist-materialist" (in Chick's designation), Abe believes "the greatest heroes of all, the philosophers, had been and always would be atheists." He is as dismissive of balms about the hereafter as he is of mediocre students, romantic nature-lovers, and instructions from his doctor.

Chick, a novelist, is an American Jew of a less eccentric sort. Politically liberal, well educated, attending temple on the high holidays, Chick is unsure whether there's a world beyond. He knows the damage that the scientists and the Freudians (let alone the Nazis) have inflicted on the idea, yet he retains a "persistent hunch" that when he dies he'll meet his loved ones. Ravelstein welcomes his discussions with Chick about the afterlife because he relishes debunking his friend's sentimentalities. Chick enjoys provocatively clinging to his intellectually unfashionable feelings because they provide him comfort.

It is the complicated bond between these two aging Jewish intellectuals--and not any roman-a-clef parlor games about Bellow's models for his characters--that gives "Ravelstein" its mystique and its pull. We follow these men through their final years, and through Chick's effort to capture his friend's life in print, and we wonder: What animates this unusual friendship? For Chick is a troubled but profoundly humane figure in the spirit of Herzog, the (anti-?)hero of Bellow's enduring 1964 novel, while Ravelstein is, in many ways, quite despicable.

Ravelstein, after all, regularly offends people and doesn't care. He rants that black "ghetto" residents, unlike their Jewish predecessors, lack "highly developed feelings, civilized nerves," while extolling black soldiers on TV as "well spoken." For all his high-minded denunciations of bourgeois values, he can be breathtakingly shallow. A homosexual without a family to provide for, he wastes his millions on clothes and linens, resembling, in his fixation on brand names, a Bret Easton Ellis creation far more than a traditional Bellovite. He berates Chick: "You have no interest in fashion. You don't care about name brands."

Chick is not blind. He calls Abe, playfully but not irrelevantly, a "sinner." Yet in spite of Abe's sins, or rather because of them, he loves Abe. What attracts him to Abe is not that his friend will drop $4,500 on a Lanvin jacket but that he'll proceed to ruin the jacket minutes later by staining it with his overpriced espresso--and not particularly care. He likes Ravelstein equally for his convictions and his contradictions.

Late in the novel, in an episode Bellow handles with subtlety and complexity, Chick muses about an old acquaintance, named Radu Grielescu, who cultivated his company some years before. Grielescu was a Jungian and a Romanian nationalist during World War II, but despite those red flags the tolerant Chick refused to acknowledge the man's anti-Semitism. It was Ravelstein who tried to alert Chick that his public association with Grielescu was conferring legitimacy on the scoundrel; indeed, it was helping to whitewash Grielescu's crimes--which, Abe added, included having joined in a horrific wartime massacre "when they hung people alive on meathooks in the slaughterhouse and butchered them--skinned them alive." Chick assuaged his doubts about consorting with Grielescu by telling himself that these "midcentury politics were dead and buried."

As he dedicates himself to writing about Ravelstein, however, Chick realizes he's been played for a fool. Ravelstein's cries that "the man is a Hitlerite" turned out to be more humane than Chick's liberal rationalizations. One of Ravelstein's compelling ironies is that this atheist and cosmopolite--who, as Chick says aphoristically, prefers Athens to Jerusalem--should grasp sooner than Chick an important truth about Jewish history: Whether they wanted the job or not, "the Jews ...were historically witnesses to the absence of redemption." It's a mark of the men's deep friendship that Ravelstein can finally impart this tenet to Chick; and it's a mark of Bellow's dexterity and vision that he can show this transmission not through a tendentious novel of ideas but through a vivid portrait of platonic affection.

Bellow intimates in "Ravelstein" that Chick is kidding himself in imagining that we'll someday be literally reunited with our loved ones. Certainly for Jews, the absence of redemption, made stark by the Holocaust, makes even holding out such a possibility seem cruel and perverse. But a different sort of afterlife may exist in this sense, that it will always be possible to carry forward the wisdom and memory of one's teachers, friends and forebears, and to heed Abe's haunting instruction to Chick: "Just give a thought now and then to those people on the meathooks."

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