Tuesday 25 April 2017

The Assistant

I've just finished a novel I'd been meaning to read for some while - Bernard Malamud's The Assistant - and it's left me moved, shaken, and quite convinced that I have encountered a true modern classic.
 Malamud's second novel, The Assistant is set in a poor district of New York, where Morris Bober, a Jewish grocer (who, importantly, has lost a young son) lives with his wife and daughter, and struggles to keep his failing business going. His life hits a new low when his store is raided by two holdupniks, one of whom hits him ferociously over the head. While he is still recovering, a mysterious young man begins to haunt the store, offering to work, for nothing, as an assistant. Morris, against his wife's objections, takes him on, and the grocery's fortunes begin to improve. But who is the young man? Can Morris trust him? And what will happen when he begins to fall in love with Morris's daughter?
 This seems at first like a familiar narrative structure, but in Malamud's hands it serves as the framework for a fascinating and profound moral drama, one in which nothing is simple and everything is difficult. The unfolding events, expertly unwound through a process of revelation and concealment, are never predictable and the ground is never firm beneath our feet - which is to say that this novel feels a lot like life itself. The main characters are, like the story, many-layered - they draw us into their lives, eager to find out more, to know them, though they are ultimately unknowable, even to themselves. None is more compelling than Frank Alpine, 'the assistant', the young man at the centre of the novel, a man set on a terribly difficult path of redemption, one from which he is all too liable to stray, but which is the only thing that can save him from himself - and in saving himself, he might save others.
 This is a wholly convincing tale of suffering and penance, love and forgiveness, the all but impossible making of a new life. It exerts an unshakable grip and feels, from beginning to end, like a classic. I suspect Malamud is better known and more highly valued in the States than over here. I'd previously only read one of his novels - the rather atypical A New Life - but I'll surely be reading more now. Recommendations welcome.


  1. The Fixer and some of the short stories. "The Magic Barrel", "Idiots First" and "The German Refugee" come to mind.

  2. Thanks Waldo - I thought The Fixer might be my next.

  3. I concur with Waldo. Everything up through "The Fixer" is worth reading (even "The Natural," which is has a lot of the bugs you often find in ambitious first novels, but also some gorgeous stuff).