“He felt, in places in the book, even when it excited him, as if his face had been shoved into dirty water in the gutter; in other places, as if he had been on a drunk for a month.” Frank Alpine, on reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (pp. 107)
The Assistant, by Bernard Malamud
Another book that was somewhat difficult for me to get through, much like Book Three on the list (American Pastoral) but not for the griminess and malaise that book was permeated with. The Assistant is, to put it lightly, a little slow. Morris Bober is a Jewish immigrant to the United States who owns a failing grocery store. One night, his store gets robbed out of its meager takings by a pair of masked “holdupniks” and Morris is injured during the fracas. Soon after, a young drifter named Frank Alpine shows up on Morris’ doorstep looking for work, and Morris takes him on during his recuperation period. While working together, the grocer and his assistant come to know more about each other than they’d care to, and the mystery of who robbed the store is also brought to light.
I think the main problem I had with reading this book was the writing style. Jonathan Rosen, in his introduction, states that the book reads like a short story extended to novel size, and that felt exactly right to me, but I’m assuming here that he most likely meant that as a compliment. I on the other hand could have done without many, many bloated passages detailing just how fucked Morris’ grocery store was, its main rivals in the area, his relationship with the building owner, etc. It felt very much like the last act of a film about this guy’s failing existence, with misery upon misery piled upon him, and I wasn’t really sure if the author wanted me to root for the guy or not. Turns out, I didn’t, and basically couldn’t wait for the guy to get robbed and for some actual drama to start occurring. It’s like Malamud was so in love with showing how bad it was to be a Jewish immigrant at this time in history that he forgot to write the actual book, but whatever. I just wish I’d known it was going to be a tone poem about despair going in is all.
I found the book’s other big character, Frank Alpine, much more interesting. He too, is cut from the same mold as Morris, a perennial failure for whom everything he touches turns into liquid shit, but at least he tries new things. “The robbing people thing doesn’t really work out, maybe I’ll try working retail”, that sort of thing. A little motivation for a character goes a long way for me, as opposed to Morris’ desperation incarnate .You could say the same thing about Augie March, for instance; he too keeps bouncing from job to job, but most importantly he never stagnates (in his professional life anyway, his love life was another matter entirely).
I did learn a bit about Jewish culture, and how some choose to internalize their faith rather than sharing it with others. The conversations between Morris and his wife Ida, though, grew somewhat tedious to me due to Malamud’s insistence on capturing the unique cadence and grammar of the speaker of English as a second language. Their constant referrals to the “Italyener” and the “Poilisheh” distracted me rather than pulling me into the immigrant frame of mind. Also, the less said about the ending the better; yes, I did notice that Morris and Alpine were becoming closer and closer to being the same person, but rather than dwelling on that fact, some closure about the other characters in the book would have been nice.
“Afterward he felt downhearted; every sight lost to a guy who lived with his eyes was lost for all time.” (pp. 63)
Total Pages read: 2163 pp
Next up on the Resolution Project: Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987)