Humboldt's Gift is what I would call a typical 1970's American novel. Not the happiest decade for the USA. I know that's a vague description, but if you've read books such as Something Happened, The Dice Man, Memoirs of the Ford Administration, Lot 49, American Pastoral (written in 1998, but looks back to this time), Looking for Mr Goodbar, etc, you'll recognise familiar themes - essentially, a bunch of bored, wealthy people, drifting aimlessly downstream, grabbing at any 'new' sexual game or a la mode suburban metaphysic that doesn't cost them a moment's pain. The characters are residually Jewish or Christian, but nowhere in H's Gift is there any mention of Synagogue or Church, as these anchors are far too old-fashioned to deserve any consideration.
At least Gatsby's friends didn't indulge in this sort of dreary, Madame Blavatsky-esque nonsense that Bellow continually tries to pass off as high idealism:
"He argued that between the conception of an act and its execution by the will there fell a gap of sleep. It might be brief but it was deep. For one of man's souls was a sleep-soul. In this, human beings resembled the plants, whose whole existence is sleep."
At the end of the novel, after five hundred pages of melancholic introspection and some really snappy screenplay dialogue from Chicago's gangsters, we have a group of people standing around Humboldt's coffin in a cemetary. No one can think of an appropriate prayer, so one confused old fellow decides to sing an aria from Aida instead.
I know this won the Pulitzer and Bellow has the Nobel Prize, but - it's been said before - writers win awards for many reasons, and literary talent isn't the most important. Bellow captured the spirit of the age, puts it in a nice, attractive bottle and makes us think we have a vintage. We don't.