Two books set in grocery store that teaches a moral lesson about goodness. The current book, Bernard Malabud’s The Assistant, reminds me of Jon Hassler’s Grand Opening. It recounts a year in the life of the Foster family, beginning on the day in fall 1944 when they uproot themselves from Minneapolis and move to the country village of Plum, where Hank and Catherine have invested their hopes and their life’s savings in a ramshackle grocery store. Soon the town comes alive under Hassler’s pen as the Fosters become inevitably entwined with the lives of townspeople. Those who attach to them are also social outcasts. Wallace Flint, the grocery clerk, is a misfit who sees in Catherine a kindred spirit. Epilepsy has prevented him from going to college, leaving him moldering in the stultifying atmosphere of Plum. He hates Dodger Hicks, a 15-year-old neglected son of a criminal father, for having insinuated himself in Hank and Catherine’s good graces. A kleptomaniac, Brendan is Dodger’s only friend. It is, however, Dodger who creates in Brendan, and in the novel, one of the fundamental dilemmas of human existence.
The Assistant is also set in a grocery store that had seen better days in Brooklyn. The Jewish owner Morris Bober struggles to make ends meet as his customers fall into misfortune after Second World War. The arrival of a young man from the West helps revive the business. But there are complications. Frank Alpine, who is an orphan and has been on a quest for life’s meaning, has fallen in love with Bober’s daughter, Helen Bober; at the same time, he begins to steal from the store. He feels pepped up for his stealing, because he has helped turn the business around. But he also feels fits of self rages and experiences remorse. Frank Alpine also struggles to reveal a secret that will complete revolt Morris Bober’s trust in him. On its surface, it’s somewhat trite and depressing: Poverty, shattered dreams and the mundane happenings inside a floundering neighborhood grocery. Malabud brings alive a college dropout, a roaming thief, and an old, cantankerous couple alive. He does it, through a combination of honest internal dialogue and a continuously building sympathy for those with good intentions who inevitably fall on bad luck.