Augie, now a junior in high school, goes to work for William Einhorn, a brilliant, wealthy disabled man who needs help with daily tasks. Einhorn reads constantly and busies himself with correspondence, entering contests and distributing a newsletter for invalids. He has various small swindles and dirty deals by which he makes money. Einhorn is the first great man Augie has known, and sees Augie as his protégé. However, he makes sure Augie knows he’s not a member of the family and won’t inherit any of their money—it will go to his son, Arthur, a university student.
The Einhorns are real estate brokers and own many properties, including a poolroom. William’s father, the “Commissioner,” is elderly but still vigorous and in control of the family business. His half-brother Dingbat hangs about the poolroom and is engaged to various women. Dingbat looks like a criminal, with a scar on his face and shiny black hair, but is really a kind man who takes Augie under his wing and invites him to parties. William’s wife Tillie deals with domestic tasks and worshipfully obeys her husband. She overlooks the fact that William has a mistress, a tarty housemaid named Lollie Fewter, who also makes passes at Augie.
Augie still doesn’t know what he wants from life, and is floundering to find it out. For a short time, Dingbat influences him. Dingbat is training a mediocre heavyweight fighter named Nails Nagel, and he invites Augie to travel along with them to an out-of-state fight in Muskegon, Michigan. Nails becomes violently seasick on the journey across Lake Michigan, and arrives at Muskegon queasy and sagging. He loses the fight.
The three return home to find that there has been a fire at Einhorn’s that destroyed the living room. Augie realizes that William Einhorn set it himself to get the insurance money, which he wanted to use to buy new living room furniture. The insurance company refuses to pay, and Einhorn is deflated. Einhorn gives Augie a set of Harvard Classics half-ruined by the fire. He begins reading them in earnest.
Meanwhile, things are not well at home, as Grandma is beginning to be senile and quarrels with Mama, who is going blind. Simon decides that she must be put in a home. Grandma takes her banishment nobly, even claiming to have thought of the idea herself as a way to retire in style. Augie is deeply moved by Grandma’s dignity.
At the Einhorns’, the Commissioner is dying. Dingbat stays near his father’s side. William Einhorn is taking over the family business, but is making some enemies of the Commissioner’s former cronies with his stubborn and demanding ways. “The idea shouldn’t get started that you can be made to back down,” he explains to Augie.
Augie muses over Einhorn. He is a remarkable person, and although his vices—including lecherousness, selfishness, jealousy, and hypocrisy—are very apparent, Augie admires him for the fight he has made against his disability.
The Commissioner dies and a funeral is held in the synagogue. In going through his father’s papers, Einhorn discovers many debts owed to his father, and worries whether he will ever get the money.
Soon after, all of Einhorn’s wealth vanishes in the stock-market crash. The tenants of his apartment block stop paying rent, and Einhorn shuts off their heat in the middle of winter as punishment. He evicts some of them, and in return is picketed and terrorized by Communist protesters. Soon, Einhorn loses the buildings and land that the family had owned.
At last, Einhorn loses everything but his pool hall, and installs himself in an office there. He makes the best of his situation, adding a lunch counter and dice board to the pool hall in order to bring in more money. He claims that the crash hasn’t devastated him: “It isn’t personally so terrible to me. I was a cripple before and I am now. Prosperity didn’t make we walk, and if anybody knew what a person is liable to have happen to him, it’s William Einhorn.”
With the dismal economic climate, people look to their sons for aid. Kotzie Kreindl, a dentist, now supports his family. The Coblins’ son, Howard, back safely from the war, plays the saxophone for money. However, Einhorn’s son Arthur has a liberal arts education and no profession, and cannot help his family monetarily. In his diminished financial state, Einhorn can no longer afford to pay for help, and Augie is dismissed.
The Marches’ savings are gone, and Augie goes to work at a drugstore soda counter. Simon signs up for college and makes money here and there as a poolroom hustler and dice player. Augie admires Simon. He reflects that Simon is very gifted, with a clear-eyed gaze and an appearance of solid honesty that may not be entirely genuine but which wins the confidence of others. Simon has learned a great variety of social skills, and seems very savvy and suave to Augie. Simon also goes to Communist meetings, but is not really committed to the cause. Augie’s friends Jimmy Klein and Klein’s cousin Clem Tambow have been hit hard by the unemployment. Jimmy is studying bookkeeping and Clem has become a bum, staying in bed at home and harassing his mother.
With no source of income, Augie is tempted by a neighborhood thief named Joe Gorman, who invites Augie to help him rob a leather-goods shop. An old classmate, Sailor Bulba, goes along. Afterwards, Augie is sick with guilt, and he resolves never to rob again. Einhorn finds out about the robbery and lectures Augie. “This is where a young fellow starts to decay and stink, and his health and beauty go. By the first things he does when he’s not a boy any longer, but does what a man does. A boy steals apples, watermelons…. But to go out as an armed bandit…. Don’t be a sap, Augie, and fall into the first trap life digs for you.” Einhorn guesses the reason why Augie committed the crime: he has opposition in his soul; he is a rebel. Augie realizes with powerful feeling that Einhorn is right. He never has accepted determination, and refuses to become what others expect of him. This spirit of opposition, and not a true criminal instinct, was his motivation.
To keep Augie honest, Einhorn hires him again. Ironically, the first thing they do together is swindle a gangster on a land deal, making four hundred dollars. The Depression has changed everyone. Tillie Einhorn now works at the lunch counter in the pool room. Einhorn grows more careworn now that his father is gone and the burden is on him. He no longer sees Lollie, who has left the family, but he keeps track of her, until at last he learns that she has been killed by an angry lover after she got him into trouble with the law.
On the night of Augie’s graduation from high school, Einhorn takes him to a brothel to lose his virginity. He carries Einhorn into the place on his back. When they return, Einhorn lets him take his car to the graduation party.
Analysis of Chapters 5–7
Grandma was Augie’s mentor in the first four chapters. Now that his childhood world has lost its glamour, he moves out of the old woman’s narrow circle of influence and finds a new benefactor in William Einhorn, the first truly worldly man he has known. Through Einhorn and the Commissioner, Augie gets a view of “the connoisseurs’ club of weighty cronies, who all showed by established marks—rings, cigars, quality of socks, newness of panamas—where they were situated.” These are self-made men who have created their own wealth and power, and it impresses Augie. He is particularly impressed by the way Einhorn struggles, working hard to make something for himself, despite being crippled in the arms and legs.
Like Grandma, Einhorn is a Machiavellian figure, with his small schemes and swindles. “There’s law, and then there’s Nature,” he says. “Somebody has to get outside of law and opinion and speak for Nature. It’s even a public duty, so customs won’t have us all by the windpipe.” Also like grandma, Einhorn is a parental figure to Augie, lecturing him after the robbery with Joe Gorman and taking him to lose his virginity.
Numerous parallels in these chapters illustrate how Augie has grown up and his world has grown more vast and more dangerous. Whereas in the first four chapters Augie had stolen quarters and had an innocent crush, he now participates in armed robbery and goes to a brothel. Georgie was sent away at the end of Chapter 4; now Grandma, the former head of Augie’s household, is sent to live in a home. Grandma’s decline and fall from power also parallels the death of the Commissioner, and both events echo and foreshadow the Great Crash.
The contrast between Augie and Simon is increasingly marked. Augie still doesn’t know what he wants from life; he’s “circling.” Simon, however, knows where he is going, and has the savvy to get there. Simon is a more Machiavellian figure than Augie. He makes decisions based on practicality rather than sentiment and scruples, as when he decides to send Grandma Lausch to a home, while the softhearted Augie can’t stand the idea. Augie feels pressure now to measure up. The old order has fallen, and the time has come for the sons to grow up and take their places as leaders and supporters of their families. The decisions Augie makes from now on will have greater weight.