‘The Assistant’ a gritty tale of survival in Depression-era America
(Editor’s note: “Retro Reviews,” is a yearlong series in which Chronicle Correspondent Hilary Daninhirsch will review Jewish-themed books that have been out of print for decades, or perhaps remain in print but are difficult to find [except in your public library]. Some titles may be recognizable; others may be obscure. But if they appear here, then you can bet they still have something to offer the Jewish reader.)
Bernard Malamud ranks alongside Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Chaim Potok as one of the most prolific Jewish-American writers of our time.
Malamud won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his 1966 work, “The Fixer,” a dark novel about a Jew living in Czarist Russia who was unjustly imprisoned on a blood libel charge. The book was turned into a 1968 movie with Alan Bates.
Malamud also wrote “The Natural,” which was made into a 1984 movie starring Robert Redford and Glenn Close.
But not a word is wasted in one of his lesser known works, “The Assistant,” a spare but emotion-packed character study of an immigrant grocer, his wife and daughter, and the Italian-American assistant, Frank Alpine, who changes all of their lives.
Morris Bober, a Jewish Eastern European immigrant, operates a failing grocery store in New York City during the Great Depression. Times are tough, and he is barely making ends meet.
Morris constantly worries about the competition — a “modern” grocery and delicatessen, which opens on the corner. After Morris’ store is robbed by some “holdupniks” and he’s beaten up by one of them, he feels the shame of failure even more acutely:
… Morris saw the blow descend and he felt sick of himself, of soured expectations, endless frustration, the years gone up in smoke, he could not begin to count how many. He had hoped for much in America and got little. And because of him, Helen and Ida had less. He had defrauded them, he and the bloodsucking store.
He fell without a cry. The end fitted the day. It was his luck, others had better.
Soon after the robbery, in walks Frank Alpine, a drifter who is seeking employment. Morris’ wife, Ida, doesn’t trust Frank and insists he be fired at once, but somehow, Frank manages to worm his way into their lives and homes. He makes improvements in the store. Unforgivably, though, he falls for the couple’s 20-something daughter, Helen. Despite herself, Helen is drawn to Frank as well. She wants to go to college, but because of the family’s lack of funds, she is forced to work in a menial job to help support the family.
The book is told from shifting points of view: Morris’, Frank’s and Helen’s; each character is flawed and miserable with his or her lot in life.
Frank’s struggle with his conscience, between his good and evil impulses, demonstrates the book’s theme of redemption. Frank has considered becoming a professional gangster, but at the same time, is trying to make himself a better person. However, as he tries to help Morris make the store a success, he also steals from him and spies on Helen in the shower.
Morris also vacillates between selling the store and not selling the store, between firing Frank and keeping him on, between forgiveness and anger. And Helen’s feelings for Frank are also conflicted, changing over and over again throughout the duration of the book. The only one who holds steadfast to her opinions is the dramatic Ida, although even her opinion of Frank undergoes a metamorphosis by the end of the book.
Morris’ and Helen’s identities as Jews plays a large part in the story, especially in that they are one of a few Jewish storekeepers in their neighborhood. One can almost hear Morris and Ida’s Yiddish lilts in their conversations:
She was sitting in her bathrobe with Helen in the living room, her eyes dark with anger. ‘Are you a baby you had to go out in the snow? What’s the matter with such a man?’
‘I had my hat on. What am I, tissue paper?’
‘You had pneumonia,’ she shouted.
‘Mama, lower your voice,’ Helen said, ‘they’ll hear upstairs.’
‘Who asked him to shovel snow, for God’s sakes?’
‘For twenty-two years stinks in my nose this store. I wanted to smell in my lungs some fresh air.’
‘Not in the ice cold.’
‘Tomorrow is April.’
‘Anyway,’ Helen said, ‘don’t tempt fate, Papa.’
‘What kind of winter can be in April?’
‘Come to sleep.’ Ida marched off to bed.
The story is gritty and raw. The book paints a bleak portrait of daily survival, of the continual struggle to make ends meet, and the shame of failure, particularly as Morris’ rival, the neighboring storeowner Karp, is more successful in his business. The tone is mournful, with suffering and misery depicted as a normal part of life, though somehow the book manages to stray away from outright hopelessness.
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)