Friday, August 12, 2016

Review: "The Assistant" by Bernard Malamud

The Assistant, Bernard Malamud’s second novel, is a rather grim affair, even for a writer whose specialty is dignified pessimism, with protagonists that are almost always Jewish immigrants. The story is also, I surmised, about the limits of altruism, where good deeds do not always beget good fortune and bad deeds can always be interpreted by the person committing them as good is the means to an end. It is thriller, but one of character instead of plot: what drives the narrative, and the reader’s interest in the story aren’t the actions committed or what might happens next, but the complex characters and the intrigue we feel as we wonder how they will react to any given situation. It begins with a grim line about the darkness outside of Morris Bober’s failing grocery store. He has a few regular customers, buying things like ham and milk, and a few who owe credit he knows they are not going to pay back. He has a wife Ida, stifled in their tiny apartment and pathologically disappointed. That disappointment is inherited by his daughter Helen, a 23-year old who slaves away as a secretary, dreaming of going to school and finding love, but not having the means to obtain either. One day, Morris is brutally robbed, sustaining a head injury. Soon afterward, Frank, an Italian drifter, interjects himself into the Bober’s life. He starts working there for room and board, he revitalizes the business and he becomes smitten with a reluctant Helen. It is not hard to see where things are going, but seeing how they get there is a pleasure on the page. From Morris’ continued slide toward indignity, shown in his rather painful search for work outside the grocery store, to brutal climax and the pitch black comedy that shines through during a eulogy to one of the main characters, this modern fable about the malleability of the kind and ignorant, from a rather underrated figure in 20th century literature.

Rating: 4/5

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