Tuesday, May 26, 2015


When I was in high school my dad recommended that I read the novel, The Assistant, by Bernard Malamud.  Then in college I took a course called Modern American Novel, and in it The Assistant was a required reading. So I read it again.  Then in graduate school I enrolled in Jewish American Novel and it, once again, was on the reading list.  When I taught high school and had free rein to select books for the students, I put it on the list.

The Assistant is one of my favorite novels and not just because I had to read it several times.   I've read some of Malamud's other novels as well: A New Life; Dubin's Lives; The Tenants; The Fixer (made into a powerful movie with Alan Bates), and The Natural (also made into a good movie with Robert Redford).  But The Assistant is my favorite, probably because it contains the single line that has stuck with me for fifty years.

The story is about a grocer, Morris Bober, his wife Ida, and their daughter. Helen.  The tiny grocery hardly makes an income but despite this Morris hires an assistant, Frank Alpine, to help him in the store.

I don't know what got me to thinking about Malamud recently, but I was--and looked him up on line. I saw that his daughter, Janna Malamud Smith, had written a biography of her dad.  It is called, My Father is a Book.  I located the book in a town library and just completed it. The subtitle of the book is: "A Memoir of Bernard Malamud."  The book is less a memoir of Bernard Malamud and more a memoir of Janna Malamud Smith and her relationship with her father.   Still the book is illuminating.

I think of Malamud's writing as so unpretentious, yet his letters to his daughter include quite a bit of name dropping and read more high falutin than the correspondence needed to be.  I discovered that Malamud's own dad owned a grocery like the main character in The Assistant, that Malamud had an affair like the main character in Dubin's Lives, and that Malamud's first college teaching job had similarities to the protagonist's in A New Life.   It was also surprising to learn that for someone who wrote about Jewish life and issues so centrally, Malamud had no real religious connection to Judaism in his day to day life.  He married a gentile, did not observe Jewish holidays and, nominally at least, observed Christmas.

When I was in graduate school, the professor for the Jewish American novel course was away one day while we were reading The Assistant.  A graduate student, who sat in the class daily, took over for him for that one session.  It was a large class and the graduate student was unprepared for the experience of lecturing to a big group. He was nervous and fidgety and despite being extraordinarily knowledgeable about Malamud (once claimed to me that the he knew more about Malamud than anyone "on the planet")  could not deal with the students losing interest and rudely conversing while he was attempting to make a point. He had a copy of the paperback in his hand and was rolling it in his palm so that it took the shape of a cylinder, like a baton in a relay race. He was losing the group and just losing it period, so toward the end of the class while people were talking and paying no attention to the guy, he turned and like a discuss thrower hurled the baton/paperback into the assembled. Then he stomped up the aisle of the lecture room, grabbed the book, and darted out.

I didn't know him well enough to follow him out and try to placate him.  Had I, I would have offered some platitude like, "don't take it so personally". This, however, would have violated a tenet that ran through all of Malamud's writing:  Emotion runs the show.  You can't let things that relate to the heart NOT bother you. You are human because emotion does affect you. Otherwise you would be a chair.

The line from the book I will never forget relates to this.

 While working in the store, Frank Alpine falls in love with Morris's daughter, Helen, who lives with her family above the grocery.  The two become sweethearts until Helen decides that she must end the relationship. Despite this Frank buys Helen a beautiful scarf and some books that she has mentioned she loves to read.  Frank leaves the gifts outside her door.

The next day while emptying out the trash from the grocery, Frank notices that Helen has taken the gifts and thrown them out with the garbage.  He is stunned. He picks up the items, staggers up the stairs, and knocks on her door. Helen opens up and sees Frank standing there holding out the gifts looking at her incredulously.

She says, "Frank, don't feel hurt."

And then he says the line I will never forget,

"When I don't feel hurt, I hope they bury me."

And it is this sentence that I think of whenever I think of Bernard Malamud.  And, interestingly, it came to mind when I thought just recently of the graduate student who hurled the book into the unappreciative student audience. We feel.  Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes we become elated. When we cannot feel, there is no life.

Nothing in his daughter's memoir undermines the point.  At the end, the reader--or at least I--still thinks of Malamud as a good conscientious human--maybe a little needier than I had previously thought, but--regardless someone--who knew that love was the key to being human.

If you are a fan of Malamud, I would recommend the book. If you never heard of him, and like to read, I recommend reading The Assistant.  It is not as in your gut powerful as The Fixer, but it is a book that has stuck around in my head for a lifetime.

Not everything is related to sport, but I think Malamud's point about the power of emotion is what makes sport what it is.  Tonight the Rangers play the Lightning to survive in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers with nothing on the line except their love for their team will be elated if the Rangers win and deflated if they are to lose. Might as well bury you if you can't feel that sensation about something.

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