Books: Malamud’s “The Assistant”

What to read after Jonathan Franzen’s luminous, full-bodied “Freedom?” I tried one of Franzen’s favorites, Paula Fox’s “Desperate Characters” (1970) but found it episodic and curiously unsatisfying

I picked up Malamud’s “The Assistant” (1957). Its first sentence sets the inviting but grim tone: “The early November street was dark though night had ended…” By the end of the first chapter we see a kindly but weary grocer robbed, beaten on the head with the butt of a gun.

Malamud’s first and best-known novel is “The Natural” (1952), a darkly magical story about a star baseball player. “The Assistant,” his second, concerns the immigrant Brooklyn neighborhood of Malamud’s youth.

Morris Bober is a Jewish grocer in a poor neighborhood peopled by Poles and Italians. Wife Ida nags him to stop smoking and sell the store. Daughter Helen, a blue-eyed beauty, wants a college education and a better life. Hurt and used by Ned Pearl, a college man, she vows to keep her body to herself until marriage — with disastrous consequences

Enter Frank Alpine, a Catholic drifter who needs work, food and shelter. The grocer, recovering poorly from the whack to his head, provides all. Ida frets. Helen, initially repulsed by Frank’s poverty, falls for him.

Working beside Morris, Frank asks why Jews suffer. They suffer because they are Jews, Morris replies. “What do you suffer for?” Frank presses him. “I suffer for you,” the grocer replies.

Who’s the Jew?

Nothing seems to happen; everything seems to happen. Someone is stealing milk and rolls. A fire consumes the neighboring liquor store. A competing grocer opens. Put off by Helen, Frank rapes her in a city park.

Ida and Morris speak a different language, choppy and harsh. “Did you count yet the rolls?” one asks. “What time comes home papa?” When Morris dies, the family needs Frank’s help; Frank takes a second job to keep them from starving. Understandably, Helen shuns him, calls him a dog.

The conclusion shocks.

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