The Pequod Review:
Humboldt's Gift is poorly structured — the dual narratives of a brilliant poet’s downfall and the adventures of a successful Chicago author/playwright don’t quite fit together — but it has some of Saul Bellow’s deepest themes, primarily related to consumerism and the role of the artist in the modern world. It is also one of the great books about the city of Chicago, with a range of memorable characters (lawyers, gangsters, writers, academics, mistresses, and many more), a freewheeling and idiomatic dialogue, and vivid images of the city’s bars, courtrooms, parks, and pool halls.
And while Bellow’s first-person narration is looser and more improvised than in earlier books, it retains moments of astonishing imagery:
I passed the squirming barber pole, and when I got to the sidewalk, which was as dense as the galaxy with broken glass, a white Thunderbird pulled up in front of the Puerto Rican sausage shop across the street and Ronald Cantabile got out. He sprang out, I should say. I saw that he was in a terrific state. Dressed in a brown raglan coat with a matching hat and wearing tan kid boots, he was tall and good-looking. I had noticed his dark dense mustache at the poker game. It resembled fine fur. But through the crackling elegance of the dress there was a current, a desperate sweep, so that the man came out, so to speak, raging from the neck up. Though he was on the other side of the street, I could see how furiously pale he was.
Despite its flaws, Humboldt's Gift is in many ways a deeper and better book than Herzog.