#8: The Assistant (1957), by Bernard Malamud

Morris was incensed by thoughts of the long years he had toiled without just reward.

——

In the introduction to a recent reissue of  The Assistant, Jonathan Rosen writes, “[Bernard] Malamud was a master of the short story, and it sometimes seems that his characters are too poor to live in longer fiction.”

And how! My edition of The Assistant is 246 pages, a modest length by any standard, and yet there’s enough suffering in it to make a Cleveland sports fan cry uncle. Malamud is ruthless: every time shopkeeper Morris Bober and his family get some shred of good news, be it a few extra bucks in the weekly till, the temporary closing of a rival, or in the case of Bober’s daughter Helen, the realization that she’s in love with the store’s Italian assistant, they get knocked down with a force ten times greater, one cosmic joke served up after another.

The hits keep coming so often that one wonders if Rosen is right, that maybe Malamud’s characters are better served in short bursts. And his readers, for that matter. Do we have the emotional stamina to withstand anything longer?

Turns out, yes, we should. For all its bleakness, The Assistant remains a compelling novel that delivers its pleasures in small, unanticipated ways. The story about a hard-luck Jewish shop-owner and the mysterious gentile Italian guy he reluctantly takes in as his apprentice has the timeless quality of something biblical. There’s sin, sacrifice, atonement, redemption, and debilitating amounts of guilt: all those good Old Testament standbys.

More than one article I’ve read place Malamud in a loose trinity of  great 20th-century American-Jewish authors*, but lately he seems to have ceded the field. Why is that? Certainly his stories lack the provocative humor and controlled fury of Philip Roth’s**, and his prose isn’t as virtuosic as Saul Bellow’s, but still, what to make of his lonely, yellowing consignment to library shelves? Why aren’t more people reading Bernard Malamud?

Maybe this: his stories (including the mythical baseball novel The Natural, the outstanding short story collection The Magic Barrel, and The Fixer, which won a bunch of awards) often feel like fables, but not the kind that fill you up with hope and nourishing lessons by the end. They’re stern morality plays, with an indifferent universe doling out hard truths to the sad sacks who populate them.

(And you’ll be hard pressed to find a bigger sad sack in literature than Morris Bober. By the end of this novel, Morris will have been robbed at gunpoint, struck on the head, felled by a heart attack, stolen from, and ultimately killed by pneumonia from clearing the sidewalks of snow so he doesn’t lose any customers, all in the prison of a storeroom in which he has toiled for 16 hours a day every day for virtually his entire adult life. And yet he keeps chugging along, waking up before dawn, long before any other customers would show up, just to give one grumpy woman her daily bread for coins.)

Put simply, his books are kind of downers; you will not likely find anyone down the shore catching rays, watching the girls pass by, and reading a Malamud paperback***.

So, to recap: Not fun to read; brutally moralistic; characters eternally mistreated. What’s the sell, then? Why read Malamud at all?

Because of the writing. Malamud’s prose is so rigorously non-showy, with none of the fanfare or literary pyrotechnics that made his contemporaries more famous, that in fact, reading it today, there’s something almost revolutionary about it****. Typing this now, I realize that The Assistant features quite an elaborate plot, but he deploys it so gracefully, and calls so little attention to it, that I barely recognized how intertwined it is. How much restraint this must have taken!

The only affectation Malamud allows himself is the use of Yiddish-inflected dialogue in places (e.g., the two men who rob Bober early in the novel are “holdupniks”), leading to exchanges such as this:

“What kind plans you got then with a man that he kisses you alone in a place where nobody can find you in the park?”
“I’ve been kissed before.”
“But a goy, Helen, an Italyener.”
“A man, a human being like us.”
“A man is not good enough.”

All of which is to say: Read The Assistant. If 200+ pages of a shopkeeper killing himself to get by feels like emotional perversion, read The Magic Barrel instead. Either way, just read Malamud.

——-

*Funny quote from Bellow referenced in a Jewish Ideas Daily piece: “Bellow was also the unrivaled paragon, during his life and after his death, of American Jewish letters. This, notwithstanding  his own caustic quip on the subject in 1969: ‘This tendency to turn [Bernard] Malamud, [Philip] Roth, and me into the Hart, Schaffner & Marx of American literature is ridiculous.'”

**FWIW: In The Ghost Writer, Roth almost definitely modeled the Lonoff character, the author whom the young Zuckerman worships, after Malamud.

***Unless you’re me, of course.

****So too is Malamud’s utter rejection of celebrity, which may be another reason enduring literary fame passed him by, as he speaks about charmingly in his Paris Review interview: “I like privacy, and as much as possible to stay out of my books. I know that’s disadvantageous to certain legitimate kinds of criticism of literature, but my needs come first.”

—–

Up next: Philip K. Dick’s Ubik!

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Comments

  1. *** Ha! I’m in the same boat, I read this book while I was in Honolulu, sitting on the beach, while everybody else reads “Fifty Shades of Grey” or the latest Clive Cussler/Robert Ludlum/Tom Clancy.

    You’re spot on; depressing as hell, but an enjoyable read!

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