Last June, I shared a short list of books I hoped to read over the summer. Bernard Malamud’s 1957 novel The Assistant was on that list, because, as I explained “I should have read it long ago.”
Alas, the summer ended without my meeting the goal. But there’s a good postscript: I did manage to read the book this past week.
It’s phenomenal. The edition I’d purchased happens to include an introduction by Jonathan Rosen, and that introduction drew me in from its first two paragraphs:
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 show 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.
See what I mean?
The thing is, now that I’ve read the novel, I’m just about as impressed with Rosen’s succinctly eloquent, perfect description as I am with the book itself. And as for that book, I’m going to point you to Josh Lambert’s write-up on it for his American Jewish Fiction guide, now available on the Fig Tree Books website.
Have you read The Assistant? What did you think of it?