William J. Lederer gave us the ugly American. John Updike has given us the anxious American - a rabbit named Angstrom. And Saul Bellows gives us the inappropriate American, Dean Albert Corde.
''The inappropriate American of intricate dreaming mind,'' Dean Corde has read too many great books. A man of culture and goodwill, he finds himself preoccupied with apocalypse. The doom of cities. Violence. Intrigue. Injustice. Power games. ''Emulsions of silliness and doom.''
Cities are no longer neighborhoods but states of mind or conditions. ''South Bronx, Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, from Newark to Watts -- all the same noplace.''
''The Dean's December'' is a wintry novel about the condition of noplacem , a piece of litmus paper drawn through ''the crying ugliness of the Chicago night, '' and flown, presto change-o, behind the Iron Curtain to bureaucratic Bucharest , where politburo and payola are synonymous terms. Oh what a world, what a grand tour of American and Romanian ''realpolitik'' Bellow has arranged for us, across ''a wilderness wilder than the Guiana bush.''
Prisons, hospitals, courtrooms. Slums, guns, drugs. Academic politics: ''power qualified by the higher deviousness.'' Slums of the body. Slums of the mind. Populated by ''silken tough guys,'' reformed hit-men, spies for the KGB and an adolescent punk whose every gesture cries ''Watch this space.''
Yet over ''all the insanities of the 20th century'' Bellow sings a paean to human goodness. Dean Corde -- do-gooder, knight-errant, tilter at windmills, rescuer of maidens-in-distress -- shepherds his innocent, world-famous astronomer wife behind the Iron Curtain and back. The dean's wife, Minna Corde, is like one of those flying brides in Chagall picures, head high in the stars, feet nowhere near the earth. How Corde and his wife visit Minna's venerable, 80 -year-old mother dying in Bucharest is half the plot. How Corde helps a pretty bride bring justice to her student husband's murderers back in Chicago is the other half.
Along the way Corde exposes his own innocence against a backdrop of assorted con artists, slick lawyers, Dickensian Scrooges and Bunyanesques Worldly Wisemen. Needless to say the dean gets taken. He loses a round of one-upmanship to a syndicated columnist pal. He loses a quarter-million-dollar inheritance to a fast-talking brother-in-law. He loses his deanship.
But does he despair? Not a whit. At novel's end he is still hoping to save the world. But how to save it? What constitutes, he wonders, ''an adequate attitude?'' What acts of wisdom or of love can an inappropriate man make? What would be appropriate?
In ''The Dean's December,'' Nobel Prize-winning Saul Bellow takes on the 20th century, fists flying. The trouble is there is so much to focus and so little space to focus it in. James Michener would would stretch the novel to 1,000 pages. Tolstoy would need -- 2,000.
Mercifully Bellow keeps it brief. He has a caricaturist's eye for ''marmalade beards'' and ''nutria beards,'' for dish-shaped faces and wolf-sharp teeth. He has a photographer's eye for local sights, a stand-up comic's ear for platitude, a poet's sense of the incongrous and the absurd.
His all-too-human tale of two cities spins along like a top, even while the apocalyptic vision of ''the fantasmo imperium'' slips in and out of focus like a perch in the pickerel weed or a star in a sky of wind and cloud.