Many thanks for all the well-wishes offered in response to my existential crisis post — I find your comments very comforting! True to my nature, I suppose, instead of going to see the upbeat Slumdog Millionaire today, I chose instead to see the much more serious and sad Doubt. But it was a wonderful movie, and I find myself convinced that while sometimes escapist books and movies are what’s called for, at other times, meaty, serious works can help make a person feel less alone.
And I am very glad I read Bernard Malamud’s novel The Assistant, even if it is incredibly sad. It’s a beautiful novel, and a nearly perfect one. What’s memorable about it is the emotions it evokes in the reader — you come to care about the characters and the hardships they experience and you find yourself unable to put the book down even as you’re ready to cry at what’s happening. The novel is also important for what it says about America and the immigrant experience in the 1950s (it was published in 1957). In this book, America is not the land of promise for immigrants; instead, it’s a place where a lifetime’s hard work can land a person with exactly nothing. The characters spend their entire lives mistrusted and viewed with suspicion, at the mercy of hostile strangers. They are particularly vulnerable because they are Jewish and are surrounded by anti-semitism.
The novel tells the story of Morris Bober and his family; Morris owns a small grocery in Brooklyn, which he and his wife run, with some financial help from their 23-year-old daughter, who has a secretarial job in Manhattan. The business has had its ups and downs, but lately business has been particularly bad, especially since a bigger grocery opened just around the corner. Even the tenant living upstairs from the Bober’s cramped apartment sneaks out now and then to visit the new grocery. Morris and his wife Ida work incredibly hard, keeping the shop open 16 hours a day, seven days a week. Only occasionally on Jewish holidays did the family ever take an excursion together, but in recent years, Morris has stayed almost entirely on his small block, and almost entirely in his small store.
It’s a lonely, isolated, narrow life, but Bober sees little choice but to keep on living it. Ida has been urging him to sell the store, but he despairs of finding a buyer and isn’t sure what he would do with his life if he could find one. Their hope lies in their daughter, and specifically in their daughter making a good marriage. She would like to go to college, but can’t afford it, although she has managed a couple night classes. She is uninterested or uncertain about the few men she knows; she would like to get married and have a family, and she would also like to please her parents, but she also has dreams of finding a relationship based on intellectual equality and respect, and no such prospect has yet offered itself.
Into this situation walks the assistant, a young man named Frank Alpine, who looks as though he has seen some very rough times. No one knows where he came from, although he has a vague story which later turns out to be a lie. He starts hanging around the neighborhood looking for odd jobs and eventually Morris takes pity on him, although he soon enough learns that Frank has been stealing bread and milk from him. But Morris is good-hearted and understands that Frank’s life has been hard, and soon enough, although Ida resists this as strongly as she possibly can, Frank becomes an assistant and works for room and board and very little pay.
From here on out, the novel’s tension builds, as Morris comes to depend more and more on Frank, but Ida never gives up her suspicions of his motives. She is particularly worried about Frank’s interest in the daughter, Helen — she is terrified that Helen might fall in love with a non-Jewish man, and her fears seem to be confirmed when she catches the two of them spending time together.
I won’t describe the plot any further, except to say that Malamud does a wonderful job with Helen’s character; he describes her complicated feelings very well as she is drawn to Frank but aware of how little she knows about him and how little reason she has to trust him.
The feelings the characters have for each other and the situations they find themselves in are heart-wrenching, but it’s a satisfying kind of emotional roller-coaster, as everything about the book feels vital and true. Reading this book you can’t help but feel that you’re in the hands of a master storyteller.