Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Assistant by Bernard Malamud

In The Assistant, a hard-working and selfless but unsuccessful grocer named Morris Bober is held up by a pair of masked "holdupniks" late one night in his store who beat him and take all of the money in the cash register. One of these men is Frank Alpine, a young Italian who only joins the hold-up reluctantly and later returns to become an assistant to Bober, without confessing his part in the crime, in order to make up to himself for some of his transgressions. Frank is continually caught between his respect for Bober and his desire to pocket more money from the grocery, and eventually falls in love with Bober's daughter, Helen.

The first thing I thought about this book is that it would make a good indie film. It's subdued, but not so philosophically complicated that it would lose much in the filming, and the characters operate on the slightly superficial but often heartbreaking model of so many indie film characters. My second thought was about Jews--Malamud was one of the century's first and foremost Jewish authors, and his depiction of Bober, a kind and dignified but long-suffering man, seems to be the model for many modern Western depictions of Jewish people. At the end of the book (SPOILER), Frank becomes a Jew, but only after learning the value of suffering, hard work, and selflessness. Isn't it interesting, I think, how Western stereotypes about Jews have developed through Jewish literature and art from the money-hungry, sub-human depictions that characterize much of non-Western depictions of Jews? It fascinates me to think about how Americans understand the concept of Jewishness, and how different it must be from a century ago.

But anyway, this book was kind of boring. It was a lot like the Philip Roth book I read, but without the nasty sex. And what book is complete without nasty sex?


Carlton Farmer said...

Jews rhymes with booze. Not a coincidence in my book.

Brent Waggoner said...

The last paragraph of this review is hilarious.

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