The Assistantby Bernard Malamud, Jonathan Rosen
The Assistant, Bernard Malamud's second novel, originally published in 1957, is the story of Morris Bober, a grocer in postwar Brooklyn, who "wants better" for himself and his family. First two robbers appear and hold him up; then things take a turn for the better when broken-nosed Frank Alpine becomes his assistant. But there are complications: Frank, whose/i>
The Assistant, Bernard Malamud's second novel, originally published in 1957, is the story of Morris Bober, a grocer in postwar Brooklyn, who "wants better" for himself and his family. First two robbers appear and hold him up; then things take a turn for the better when broken-nosed Frank Alpine becomes his assistant. But there are complications: Frank, whose reaction to Jews is ambivalent, falls in love with Helen Bober; at the same time he begins to steal from the store.
Like Malamud's best stories, this novel unerringly evokes an immigrant world of cramped circumstances and great expectations. Malamud defined the immigrant experience in a way that has proven vital for several generations of writers.
"His best novel . . . The Assistant is as tightly written as a prose poem." --Morris Dickstein in Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction 1945-1970
“The clarity and concreteness of [Malamud's] style, the warm humanity over his people, the tender wit that keeps them first and compassionable, will delight many.... Mr. Malamud's people are memorable and real as rock.” William Goyen, The New York Times
"Perfect ... A lyric marvel." -- The Nation
"There is a binding theme throughout the book, a search for fundamental truths through the study of ordinary people, their everyday ups and downs, their mundane pleasures and pains ... Malamud's vision, style and world are distinctively original." -- San Francisco Chronicle
Read an Excerpt
By Bernard Malamud
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2003 Jonathan Rosen
All rights reserved.
We are told in the first sentence of The Assistant that the street "was dark though night had ended." This description in many ways captures the larger condition of Bernard Malamud's fiction. Writing after the grimmest struggles of immigrant life, after the Holocaust, after Saul Bellow had, with The Adventures of Augie March, made Jewish writing synonymous with American exuberance, Malamud conjured a world in which the long shadow of suffering still blotted out the sun.
Though he dabbled in magical realism, spread his wings in novels like A New Life, and occasionally sent a character to Italy following his own Fulbright there, Malamud's most memorable fictions are set in an outer borough of Stygian darkness where the inner light of the soul is in constant danger of winking out. When the psalmist cries, "O Lord, do not let me go down into the pit," he may have in mind something like Morris Bober's grocery store.
Morris groans as he drags in the heavy milk bottles from the freezing sidewalk. He seems, as well, to have a kind of spiritual hernia simply from bearing the injustice of the world. He is poor and his family is poor through his bad luck, uncompromising honesty, and trusting nature. There is no margin for error in his elemental world, where a man's life is measured in nickels and dimes and in the long silences between the ringing of the cash register.
"You should sell long ago the store," Morris's nagging wife says, the impossibility of their lives captured in the tenseless broken English that is, alongside moral stamina, the unwitting wealth of Malamud's characters.
Not only is there the likelihood of "holdupniks" taking your money and hitting you on the head, there is the danger of the shrunken self vanishing altogether. In the dark, tribal world that Malamud evokes, names are often secondary to ethnic labels — the German, the Norwegian, the "Poilisheh," the "Italyener," and, of course, the Jew, which is how Morris is known to many in his non-Jewish neighborhood.
Malamud was a master of the short story, and it sometimes seems that his characters are too poor to live in longer fiction. Tsuris — a Yiddish word for trouble that derives from an ancient Hebrew word meaning "narrow place" — is their true homeland. They can only dream of living in novels as they dream of abandoning their candy shops and grocery stores for something better. Morris's daughter, Helen, who has submerged her own hopes for an education under a dreary job that keeps her parents afloat, hides behind Don Quixote on the subway. She gives the drifter Frank Alpine fat books to read — Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment — as a way of enlarging his life and sparking big dreams.
The Assistant itself can feel like a short story with epic dreams. Though Malamud had already published The Natural, this was the first time he had given the humble figures of his early fiction a novelistic home. The result is a book with hybrid energy. Structured like a long short story and ending with a sudden epiphanic stab of truth, this circumscribed shadow play nevertheless contains a robbery, a beating, a rape, a death by fire, and a death by sudden illness. It is a shock to realize how much happens, since most of the tension in this peculiarly gripping novel comes from the inner struggles of its characters — to trust, to love, to change.
Morris is not merely a grim loser; he has a kind of flinty righteous force that shines in the dark. In keeping with the Jewish tenet to help the stranger because "you were strangers in the land of Egypt," the grocer opens up his life to Alpine, a shady young Italian American who has in fact helped rob him. Morris sees past the battered exterior of the "Italyener" to the soul within.
The Assistant is all about conversion. There is no way to write about the book without revealing its shocking conclusion, so finish the novel before you finish this sentence: On the last page, Frank Alpine — guilty Catholic, drifter, thief, and rapist — becomes a Jew. And yet the question of who is converting whom, and to what, haunts this novel even now, nearly fifty years after it was published, and raises profound questions about the nature of "Jewish" writing and of Judaism itself.
"The stranger had changed, grown unstrange," Helen Bober thinks as she finds herself falling in love with Frank. Suddenly, his "crooked nose fitted his face." But in many ways, Frank, the dark, hungry outsider with the crooked nose, who craves Helen and hates himself for it, has been converted by Malamud long before the last page of the book. While Helen, with her aloof manner and blue eyes and pagan name, is the unattainable shiksa in this morality play.
In a novel that makes being Jewish a grim and dyspeptic business, full of guilt and longing, Frank is already a member of the club. His talent for suffering rivals Morris's own. He keeps recalling the stories about St. Francis he learned as a boy in a Catholic orphanage — parables in which temptation is vanquished and goodness prevails. He lacerates himself for his misdeeds and struggles to liberate his higher self, even as he takes an almost perverse pleasure in his suffering.
Morris weeps when he hears Frank's hard-luck story of abandonment and neglect. This show of pity fascinates and repels Frank: "That's what they live for, Frank thought, to suffer. And the one that has got the biggest pain in the gut and can hold onto it the longest without running to the toilet is the best Jew." But Frank learns — from Morris — to treasure his misery as if it were a token of God's presence. Frank mistakes suffering for Jewishness; whether the novel makes the same mistake is a question worth examining.
"Why do Jews suffer?" Frank asks Morris one day in the back of the store.
"They suffer," the grocer replies, because they are Jews.
"What do you suffer for?" Frank asks Morris.
"I suffer for you," the grocer replies.
Earlier in this conversation, Frank has asked Morris what the essence of Judaism is and is told: "The important thing is the Torah. This is the Law — a Jew must believe in the Law." But since Morris goes on to defend his neglect of the Jewish holidays and his failure to keep kosher or, in fact, to observe any articulated Jewish laws at all, his definition of Torah becomes an answer worthy of St. Paul.
The law is not a matter of commandments; it is exclusively a matter of doing the right thing. It is universal, not particular: "I suffer for you." This is a conversation Judaism has had with itself for a long time, but The Assistant is also Malamud's dialogue with Christian culture, perhaps his quarrel with Christianity. The novel seems, paradoxically, to be half an act of post-Holocaust revenge against Christianity and half a capitulation to it. For Malamud makes his outsider, Morris — with his broken English and Russian boyhood and anti-Semitic neighbors and meager poverty and infuriating morality — the ultimate insider. He makes him Jesus Christ. "I suffer for you."
And when Frank, the suffering servant who works for slave wages in a grave of a grocery store, submits to circumcision, and drags himself around "inspired" by thepain between his legs, he is only adding a new stigma to more familiar wounds. Jews in Malamud's world are the true Christians.
But the question haunting the novel is whether Malamud is restoring to Judaism something appropriated by Christian culture — a theology of suffering — and showing up anti-Semitism as a form of blasphemy and self-hatred, or giving to Christian culture a victory denied it by persistent Jewish otherness, since it makes that very otherness a secret sameness. Is Frank leaving behind a false "new" dispensation for the enduring truths of the old, or is he carrying Judaism off into an assimilationist ether where no law but love need prevail, and where it is indistinguishable from Christianity? This novel of stubborn surfaces, indelible accents, and tenacious ethnicity turns out, as much as any Jewish American novel, to be all about embracing — indeed becoming — the "other."
Perhaps The Assistant, first published in 1957, is merely a theological formulation of a question that hovers over many novels by immigrants and the children of immigrants. Am I assimilating into mainstream society or assimilating mainstream society into myself? This may, ultimately, be an unanswerable question, unless the answer is both. Assimilation, after all, works both ways.
The Assistant deserves to be read for many reasons: the stark portrait of working people on the brink of going under; the bleak humor; the tender evocation of Helen longing for a better life, an education, a way out; the wry critique of the "good life" as mere material comfort instead of a life of goodness; the sheer pleasure of the prose. But it should also be read as a provocative part of the literature exploring, and refashioning, America as a place where the true self is both lost and found.
The early November street was dark though night had ended, but the wind, to the grocer's surprise, already clawed. It flung his apron into his face as he bent for the two milk cases at the curb. Morris Bober dragged the heavy boxes to the door, panting. A large brown bag of hard rolls stood in the doorway along with the sour-faced, gray-haired Poilisheh huddled there, who wanted one.
"What's the matter so late?"
"Ten after six," said the grocer.
"Is cold," she complained.
Turning the key in the lock he let her in. Usually he lugged in the milk and lit the gas radiators, but the Polish woman was impatient. Morris poured the bag of rolls into a wire basket on the counter and found an unseeded one for her. Slicing it in halves, he wrapped it in white store paper. She tucked the roll into her cord market bag and left three pennies on the counter. He rang up the sale on an old noisy cash register, smoothed and put away the bag the rolls had come in, finished pulling in the milk, and stored the bottles at the bottom of the refrigerator. He lit the gas radiator at the front of the store and went into the back to light the one there.
He boiled up coffee in a blackened enamel pot and sipped it, chewing on a roll, not tasting what he was eating. After he had cleaned up he waited; he waited for Nick Fuso, the upstairs tenant, a young mechanic who worked in a garage in the neighborhood. Nick came in every morning around seven for twenty cents' worth of ham and a loaf of bread.
But the front door opened and a girl of ten entered, her face pinched and eyes excited. His heart held no welcome for her.
"My mother says," she said quickly, "can you trust her till tomorrow for a pound of butter, loaf of rye bread and a small bottle of cider vinegar?"
He knew the mother. "No more trust."
The girl burst into tears.
Morris gave her a quarter-pound of butter, the bread and vinegar. He found a penciled spot on the worn counter, near the cash register, and wrote a sum under "Drunk Woman." The total now came to $2.03, which he never hoped to see. But Ida would nag if she noticed a new figure, so he reduced the amount to $1.61. His peace — the little he lived with — was worth forty-two cents.
He sat in a chair at the round wooden table in the rear of the store and scanned, with raised brows, yesterday's Jewish paper that he had already thoroughly read. From time to time he looked absently through the square windowless window cut through the wall, to see if anybody had by chance come into the store. Sometimes when he looked up from his newspaper, he was startled to see a customer standing silently at the counter.
Now the store looked like a long dark tunnel.
The grocer sighed and waited. Waiting he thought he did poorly. When times were bad time was bad. It died as he waited, stinking in his nose.
A workman came in for a fifteen-cent can of King Oscar Norwegian sardines.
Morris went back to waiting. In twenty-one years the store had changed little. Twice he had painted all over, once added new shelving. The old-fashioned double windows at the front a carpenter had made into a large single one. Ten years ago the sign hanging outside fell to the ground but he had never replaced it. Once, when business hit a long good spell, he had had the wooden icebox ripped out and a new white refrigerated showcase put in. The showcase stood at the front in line with the old counter and he often leaned against it as he stared out of the window. Otherwise the store was the same. Years ago it was more a delicatessen; now, though he still sold a little delicatessen, it was more a poor grocery.
A half-hour passed. When Nick Fuso failed to appear, Morris got up and stationed himself at the front window, behind a large cardboard display sign the beer people had rigged up in an otherwise empty window. After a while the hall door opened, and Nick came out in a thick, hand-knitted green sweater. He trotted around the corner and soon returned carrying a bag of groceries. Morris was now visible at the window. Nick saw the look on his face but didn't look long. He ran into the house, trying to make it seem it was the wind that was chasing him. The door slammed behind him, a loud door.
The grocer gazed into the street. He wished fleetingly that he could once more be out in the open, as when he was a boy — never in the house, but the sound of the blustery wind frightened him. He thought again of selling the store but who would buy? Ida still hoped to sell. Every day she hoped. The thought caused him grimly to smile, although he did not feel like smiling. It was an impossible idea so he tried to put it out of his mind. Still, there were times when he went into the back, poured himself a spout of coffee and pleasantly thought of selling. Yet if he miraculously did, where would he go, where? He had a moment of uneasiness as he pictured himself without a roof over his head. There he stood in all kinds of weather, drenched in rain, and the snow froze on his head. No, not for an age had he lived a whole day in the open. As a boy, always running in the muddy, rutted streets of the village, or across the fields, or bathing with the other boys in the river; but as a man, in America, he rarely saw the sky. In the early days when he drove a horse and wagon, yes, but not since his first store. In a store you were entombed.
The milkman drove up to the door in his truck and hurried in, a bull, for his empties. He lugged out a caseful and returned with two half-pints of light cream. Then Otto Vogel, the meat provisions man, entered, a bushy-mustached German carrying a smoked liverwurst and string of wieners in his oily meat basket. Morris paid cash for the liverwurst; from a German he wanted no favors. Otto left with the wieners. The bread driver, new on the route, exchanged three fresh loaves for three stale and walked out without a word. Leo, the cake man, glanced hastily at the package cake on top of the refrigerator and called, "See you Monday, Morris."
Morris didn't answer.
Leo hesitated. "Bad all over, Morris."
"Here is the worst."
"See you Monday."
A young housewife from close by bought sixty-three cents' worth; another came in for forty-one cents'. He had earned his first cash dollar for the day.
Breitbart, the bulb peddler, laid down his two enormous cartons of light bulbs and diffidently entered the back.
"Go in," Morris urged. He boiled up some tea and served it in a thick glass, with a slice of lemon. The peddler eased himself into a chair, derby hat and coat on, and gulped the hot tea, his Adam's apple bobbing.
"So how goes now?" asked the grocer.
"Slow," shrugged Breitbart.
Morris sighed. "How is your boy?"
Breitbart nodded absently, then picked up the Jewish paper and read. After ten minutes he got up, scratched all over, lifted across his thin shoulders the two large cartons tied together with clothesline and left.
Morris watched him go.
The world suffers. He felt every schmerz.
At lunchtime Ida came down. She had cleaned the whole house.
Morris was standing before the faded couch, looking out of the rear window at the back yards. He had been thinking of Ephraim.
His wife saw his wet eyes.
"So stop sometime, please." Her own grew wet.
He went to the sink, caught cold water in his cupped palms and dipped his face into it.
"The Italyener," he said, drying himself, "bought this morning across the street."
She was irritated. "Give him for twenty-nine dollars five rooms so he should spit in your face."
"A cold water flat," he reminded her.
"You put in gas radiators."
"Who says he spits? This I didn't say."
"You said something to him not nice?"
"Then why he went across the street?"
"Why? Go ask him," he said angrily.
"How much you took in till now?"
She turned away.
He absent-mindedly scratched a match and lit a cigarette.
"Stop with the smoking," she nagged.
Excerpted from The Assistant by Bernard Malamud. Copyright © 2003 Jonathan Rosen. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Acclaimed for his short stories, Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) received two National Book Awards (for The Magic Barrel and the novel The Fixer) and the Pulitzer Prize (for The Fixer). A native of Brooklyn, he taught for many years at Bennington College.
Bernard Malamud (1914–86) wrote eight novels; he won the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for The Fixer, and the National Book Award for The Magic Barrel. Born in Brooklyn, he taught for many years at Bennington College in Vermont.
Jonathan Rosen is the author of The Talmud and the Internet and the novels Eve's Apple and Joy Comes in the Morning. His essays have appeared in The New York Times and The New Yorker. He is the editorial director of Nextbook.
- Date of Birth:
- April 28, 1914
- Date of Death:
- March 18, 1986
- Place of Birth:
- Brooklyn, New York
- Place of Death:
- New York, New York
- B.A., City College of New York, 1936; M.A., Columbia University, 1942
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Bernard Malamud captured the immigrant life beautifully - America where dreams are made or broken; where one struggles to make a better life for their family. Morris Bober is confined to his small grocery store - his grave - an honest man struggling to make an honest living against many odds. In this captivating story you will encounter the physicality of rape, robbery, beatings and death. The mental and emotional journey you will take includes astounding glimpses of internal conflict, guilt, regret, human suffering, remorse, reconciliation, a quest for forgiveness and redemption. The Assistant is a story that transcends time. Wonderful read!
This book was interesting. The way the author explained and described each ethnic group. From the Jewish grocer to the New York liquer dealer. It is set in post war Brooklyn. Its a good book, it teaches you about Jewish life as well as other cultures you may not know about. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning about different cultures in a past time.
The ¿American dream¿ is cleverly described in Bernard Malamud¿s book, The Assistant. Bober, the main character, is a recent Russian immigrant who is trying to run a grocery store in Brooklyn in the late 1800¿s. A new grocery store is making him loose costumers, and the store is being supported mostly by his daughters pay checks. Malamund is able to describe the stress and desperation of Bobers¿s predicament. Just when Bober considers giving up the business, He meets Frank Alpine. And when Frank crosses paths with Bober, they start to take on a father-son relationship, and the story begins to develop rapidly. The characterization in Malamud¿s work is fantastic. The characters are honestly displayed with both positive and negative aspects. The scene of the story is also interesting. New York at that time was very diverse and unique, and Malamud captures that with his descriptions of the many outdoor scenes where Frank looks deep within his soul. The book puts in perspective the troubles immigrants and new business owners have, and the importance of work ethics and honesty.
This in my judgment remains Malamud's finest novel. The story of Frankie Alpine the petty thief who comes to work in the store of Morris Bober, a poor Jewish grocer , and through the work come to identify and understand Jewish suffering is a poetically written , and deeply moving work. The story of Frankie Alpine's moral transformation in becoming Malamud 's kind of Jew is subtlely and beautiful told, as is Alpine's problematic love story with Bober's daughter. For Malamud a Jew is someone who is made more humane by a special and deep suffering.This is not a very Halachic definition, and not perhaps a very accurate definition in any real way. But it is Malamud 's literary and philosophical premise, and it informs all his work.Here it is illustrated in its most compelling and sympathetic way . Who reads this work will feel the need to be a kinder and better human being.
this is the first book by malamud i've ever read and i can honestly say i'm not even one bit disappointed. i love the jewish grocer's dignity and frank's moral renewal. both characters made me once again re-evaluate my very existence in this world.
It was most difficult for the family to move on and try to eke out a better living. The daughter had higher aspirations, but her dreams were put on hold for she had to contribute to her family.
It kept interested throughout the entire book. Yet I kinda saw a few things coming without having to even read that part. :P
I liked this book because it taught me how to look at things and makes me want change the way I act towards other's. The book explained how this man named Frank went through transformation and he didn't really know who he wanted to be and he felt lost. The book made me feel that I shouldn't give up on anything just because I may not have certain things in life. I feel that when you don't have much in life that you have to put effort to try to do something with your life so that you then can be in a higher postion that everyone else is in. The book made me realize to not to judge anyone just because they might not be in the same religion that you are in you should always get to know the good side of a person, before you judge first and end up getting the bad side of them. This book can really make some one feel different about themselves after reading this book because it gives you tips and details on how a man that didn't have anything ended up having pride and being caring of other's at the end. So I would recommand people to read this book if they want to learn a little more on how they can change certain things about themselves after reading the book.
The book started off very, very boring. I almost put it down. But then it got a little interesting. (Just a little). The ending wasn't great at all.
I know this is supposed to be one of the "it" books but I simply could not get into this story at all. I thought the characters were awful people who actively ruined their own lives. I am not the kind of person that needs rainbows and sunshine in every story I read, but I would like at least one character to root for. Sadly this book did not have any such character. Totally depressing, skip it.
Without a doubt the most boring book I have EVER read. This was required reading for my Sophomore son; I'll read anything and picked it up. I can not imagine why an English teacher would imagine that a 15 year old would have any interest in this type of setting. The main character suffers through his entire life trying to make a living, his daughter gives up her dream of an education to help the family, his "assistant" steals from him, assaults him, and rapes his daughter. Not to mention his nagging wife, who talks him out of his "dream" to be a pharmacist. If you want to be depressed, read the newspaper or watch the evening newscast. There is a multitude of great literature our children can read...classics, that depict daily life...please, let the suffering stop with "The Assistant"!
This is a book where most of the characters complain about their harsh lives...for me it turned out as a self-pitying bonanza. The story dragged on and more than half way through I couldn't imagine how this was going to end. A plethora of depressing events take place and then the ending slaps you in the face with a moral punch. The Assistant is supposed to be about the transformation of this Frank Alpine. Malamud, the author, focused more on basic facts and actions rather than helping the reader see "eye to eye" with Frank. I really wanted to empathize with these characters and see what they saw. Out of everything that happened the ending left me unsatisfied and with a big, "Who cares?" hanging over my head.