I’ve heard Bernard Malamud’s name returning like an echo from the past in recent months. A biography by Philip Davis was well received last year. He was said by some to be the model for E.I. Lonoff, the admired writer in Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books, which have given me so much pleasure of late. And he was mentioned in blogs I admire such as This Space and The Age of Uncertainty. My own experience of him was limited to two novels, read maybe ten or more years ago: The Tenants and Dubin’s Lives. I enjoyed both, so it was time for a belated continuation of Project Malamud.
The Assistant (1957) was Malamud’s second novel and, like most of his books, is out of print in the UK – a scandal, but what can you do? – so I picked up this US edition, which has that kind of uniquely bad cover design which can only come from someone trying very hard but who really doesn’t know what they’re doing. I would almost have preferred the charming cleavage-based cover of an earlier mass market edition. But – for once – forget the cover design. Inside it’s all good: Roth had great taste in mentors.
From the first page Malamud throws us into real life, as refracted through Morris Bober, Jewish grocer in New York whose store isn’t doing too well. And no wonder:
The front door opened and a girl of ten entered, her face pinched and eyes excited. His heart held no welcome for her.
“My mother says,” she said quickly, “can you trust her till tomorrow for a pound of butter, loaf of rye bread and a small bottle of cider vinegar?”
He knew the mother. “No more trust.”
The girl burst into tears.
Morris gave her a quarter-pound of butter, the bread and vinegar. He found a penciled spot on the worn counter, near the cash register, and wrote a sum under “Drunk Woman.” The total now came to $2.03, which he never hoped to see. But Ida would nag if she noticed a new figure, so he reduced the amount to $1.61. His peace – the little he lived with – was worth forty-two cents.
Immediately I felt I was in safe hands; safer than Morris’s store anyway. He moved to the US for a new life, but “he had hoped for much in America and got little. And because of him Helen and Ida had less. He had defrauded them, he and the bloodsucking store.” Helen is his daughter, and the centre point of the triangle which The Assistant describes (and very much the centre point of the older cover above). Morris spends most of his time out the back of the store, waiting for custom that rarely comes – “Waiting he thought he did poorly. When times were bad time was bad” – and when Helen comes home to the store:
“Me,” she called, as she had done from childhood. It meant that whoever was sitting in the back should sit and not suddenly think he was going to get rich.
The third point is Frank Alpine, a drifter who volunteers to work in Morris’s store to make up for various misdemeanours which it would be inappropriate to reveal.
If he could root out what he had done, smash and destroy it; but it was done, beyond him to undo. It was where he could never lay his hands on it any more – in his stinking mind.
And “he was troubled by the thought of how easy it was for a man to wreck his whole life with a single wrong act.” Well, he has at least one more wrong act in him, but in the meantime Frank manages to turn around Morris’s grocery store, bringing its best turnover since the opening of the rival delicatessen around the corner. Morris suspects Frank’s success is due to goyish customers being more willing to deal with their own kind than with a Jew, though as is often the case in The Assistant, he is misinformed – or underinformed anyway.
Malamud sets up a classical three-way stasis, a sort of essence of sitcom where the three characters whose minds we inhabit – Morris, Helen and Frank – all have reasons to leave their confinement within the world of the store, but cannot bring themselves to. They are trapped by an attachment to their unhappiness. In Morris’s case, he fears change, even from the hell he currently experiences. Helen is torn between a couple of lunks who would take her hand if she’d only give them another part; “she walked on, lacking, wanting, not wanting, not happy.” Frank longs for Helen but also for Morris’s acceptance, which will be an even longer time coming if Morris ever finds out the other terrible thing he’s done.
All this cannot begin to touch on half the material of the story, the Jewishness and need for belonging which permeate the pages, or summarise the delight which Malamud takes in telling his thin but intertwined tales. His precise but devastating perceptions of how the human mind and heart work together to bring about their owner’s misery had me drumming my heels in perverse merriment. He writes – to quote a critic’s comment on Howard Jacobson which fits perfectly here – with an agility that gives pleasure akin to humour even when it isn’t actually funny. And it isn’t funny: what happens to these people is mostly terrible. But oh my, it’s thrilling to read it. Why? Why do you think?
He asked her what book she was reading.
“The Idiot. Do you know it?”
“No. What’s it about?”
“It’s a novel.”
“I’d rather read the truth.”
“It is the truth.”