The Assistant by Bernard Malamud
The Assistant is Malamud’s second novel published in 1957. From what I’ve read about the novel I get the distinct feeling that it is a dark and depressing read in that some really horrible stuff happens to some very normal people. The NYT review of The Assistant by William Goyen is entitled A World of Bad Luck and couldn’t be more apt. Richard Lacayo of TIME describes what the book is about:
“In this book, his masterpiece, Morris Bober is a woebegone neighborhood grocer whose modest store is failing and whose luck actually takes a turn for the worse when he is held up by masked hoodlums. Or is it worse? When a stranger appears and offers to work without pay, “for the experience”, it doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that the stranger is one of the men who robbed Bober. But just what are his motives in returning? He seems to be seeking to atone, but he soon begins quietly robbing the till, while also falling in love with Bober’s daughter, theft of a different kind.”
And that, according to the wikipedia article on the novel, is not even all the bad that befalls this family. Don’t read the wikipedia article if you are planning to read the novel because the plot breakdown gives away a lot. What I will say though is that Malamud’s novel seems to be about normal people who have to deal with tragic circumstance, one after the other. As the novel is praised as a masterpiece I’m intrigued to read it for these characters who are victim to really bad luck. As Goyen says:
“Mr. Malamud’s people are memorable and real as rock, and there is not one gesture of sentimentality or theatrics to render them so. He knows his people and keeps them free with the kind of writer’s control that one does not find often enough in the myriad novels about simple people.”
Interestingly the Bober family of The Assistant has something in common with Malamud’s family. Both the fathers were grocers. From the Paris Review interview of Malamud, The Art of Fiction no 52, they talk about the source of The Assistant.
What is the source of The Assistant?
Source questions are piddling but you’re my friend, so I’ll tell you. Mostly my father’s life as a grocer, though not necessarily my father. Plus three short stories, sort of annealed in a single narrative: “The Cost of Living” and “The First Seven Years”—both in The Magic Barrel. And a story I wrote in the forties, “The Place is Different Now,” which I’ve not included in my story collections.
Have you read The Assistant? I would love to hear what you thought about this novel.