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[679] The Assistant – Bernard Malamud


” The years had passed without profit or joy. Who could be blame? What fate didn’t do to him he had done to himself. The right thing was to make the right choice but he made the wrong. To understand why, you needed an education but he had none. All he knew was he wanted better but had not after all these years learned how to get it. Luck was a gift. ” (206)”

The Assistant is the story of Morris Bober, neighborhood grocer, his wife, Ida, and their daughter, Helen. Morris, though a Jew, is an immigrant—he escaped the military draft in Russia and came to Brooklyn just after the Second World War. He had plan to study and become a pharmacist, but, at the prodding of his then-young wife, he bought this grocery store to which he becomes confined all his life. The run-down grocery store takes an irretrievable turn for worse as times goes bad. A new store sprouting up nearby also takes away Bober’s customers. So the Bobers’ life is hard and small, fraught with ill luck and disappointment. The air of misery irradiates from every page.

He followed the Law which God gave to Moses on Sinai and told him to bring to the people. He suffered, he endured, but with hope. Who told me this? I know. He asked for himself little—nothing, but he wanted for his beloved child a better existence than he had. For such reasons he was a Jew. (229)

When Frank Alpine, an orphaned young man from the West, becomes Morris Bober’s assistant, things take a turn for the better. He feels ambivalent about Jewish, but falls in love with Helen, who contrives to cultivate a better life that she believes is obtainable only through higher education, of which she is deprived. But Frank Alpine is himself far from perfect, despite his good intention to help the grocer. He steals from the register and harbors a secret from Morris—that he had unwillingly taken part in a holdup of Bober’s store, that he would never have done on his own. He’s wallowed in self-hatred and remorse.

I felt sorry for him after you slugged him, so I went back to give him a hand while he was in a weak condition. I put the money in the cash register. I told the Mrs the business was getting better. I did it to quiet my conscience. (73)

The Assistant is simple despite the sluggish pace. It reads like a long short-story with epic dreams. There’s a kind of crystalline hardness over the tautly lyrical descriptions of people and scenes. All is kept simple and read—there’s never a literariness or any intrusion of philosophic values in Malamud’s world, despite the fact that the book is all about conversion.

The book concerns more with ethics than religion: the conversion of the self by the power of example. Frank Alpine’s evolution under a Jew’s guidance is incidental, that is, it is Morris Bober the man and not the Jew who impresses and influences and guides him on a new path. It’s the classic theme of redemption—by suffering that marks mankind’s path to maturity. Malamud seems to suggest this Jewishness is not only a question of religion, but a moral norm.

246 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]


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