The Assitant - Claustrophobia

Essay add: 30-09-2015, 15:06   /   Views: 252
Bernard Malamud's second novel could make a fledgling writer think of embarking on another career. Its mature, focused, tightly knit plot, rolls along on its own wheels which, in this case, would be a fifty-five Chevy. The post-war economic boom hadn't trickled down to Morris Bober and his family. He and his poor wife Ida are slaves to a grocery store in one of the boroughs of New York City and business is always bad. As Morris struggles against cutthroat competition to eke out a marginal living, Malamud examines Morris' character, hopes, dreams and predominantly, his failures.

So far as that goes, there are only failures for the Bober family, and Morris is a character in conflict with his religion and his humanity. Jewishness, being Jewish, is an unmistakeable element in this novel and Morris finds his humanistic or religious values in conflict with his survival skills. His neighbor, Karp, operates a liquor store, rents out apartments to others, and makes a "nice living". It makes no difference to Karp that alcoholics come into his store to buy booze; the reality is that a man must take care of his family. On the other hand, Morris Bober is ruled by kindness, compassion, and humanity. These values are part of his ancestral origins. Morris cannot abandon himself to single-minded money grubbing and greed and therefore he has difficulty surviving in the modern economic culture. Morris' old world backwardness gets in the way of survival, yet he cannot stoop to what he perceives as a low level of human functioning. It's a tribute to Malamud's artistry that Morris' internal conflict is revealed with no explicit dramatization of formal Jewish religious practice. Indeed, the ethnic and traditional conflicts characterized by the Bober family are common among other ethnic groups in America. Furthermore, the Bober's are estranged from synagogues and formal religion. The only time a rabbi appears in this story is at the end of the book when Morris dies. Ironically, he dies just as he is finally on the verge of succeeding. Even then, his potential for success is more a matter of happenstance than ambition.

Taking care of his family is Morris' driving ambition yet the harder he works the deeper he gets into a hopeless morass, a void of despair which consumes his health and his hopes. If there's a bright spot in Morris and Ida's life together, it's in the future of their lovely daughter Helen who works as a secretary and dreams of a college education. The Bober's hopes for Helen's future are threatened by the arrival of Frankie Alpine, a handsome "Italyener" , a young man trying to escape a checkered past. Frankie's been an orphan, a wanderer, a hood, and probably a lot of other things. The romance angle enters the novel. But what future possibilities does a guy like Frankie Alpine hold for a nice Jewish girl like Helen? His chances are slim to none, as they say. Frankie doesn't understand himself at all. In some sense, he seeks redemption but in another sense he can't escape his appetites and habits . Frankie has great passion and strength but he must fight for control of himself. He has a bad news friend named Ward, son of a cop, who drinks too much and robs people. Which figures into why Frankie is there working in the Bober failing family enterprise in the first place.
Something should be said of Malamud's adept use of language, which adds to the claustrophobic texture of the novel, the sense of being locked up in a tedious quotidien existence, and also provides boundless humor in this otherwise stark story. The use of words like "holdupnik" and other creative language structures makes you feel like you're there, in the family, sweating it out with the Bobers. This is really a terrific novel, magnificently constructed, with an intensely developed plot and characters that live and breathe. Immensely worth reading whether you're Jewish or Italyener like me.

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