I just finished The Assistant, by Bernard Malamud. The story focuses closely on just a few characters: Moris Bober, a struggling Jewish shopkeeper; his mildly dissatisfied wife and idealistic daughter; and the Italian American drifter that the shopkeeper takes on as an assistant.
It was interesting to see different experiences of the American Dream juxtaposed. The younger characters (Helen in particular) are still dead-set on trying to achieve it. Helen desperately wants to get an education and break away from the limited circle she’s grown up in. Even her attitudes towards the young assistant are initially guided entirely by her dream, and she first dismisses him as irrelevant to the picture she’s painted for her future. She is conflicted though, because she is also committed to supporting her parents, a demand that continues with the decline of the shop. In contrast, her father looks at the dream as something he missed out on by chance, even though he always did the right thing. The novel very rarely strays from the grocery shop and living quarters above, a few times down the block, to a bar, or to the park, and this limited scope really drills in the routine and confinement of Moris’ life.
The theme of redemption was really interesting as well. Frank Alpine, the store assistant, is trying to make himself a better person and redeem himself for his past sins, and the novel explores this process of coming to terms with his past and molding his character, charting his missteps and successes. At one point, Helen gives Frank several great works of literature for him to read, one of which is Crime and Punishment. Though he starts out disliking it, he comes to like the novel and even fall in love with Sonia for a few days. Just as Sonia was a major force in Raskolnikov’s redemption, so too is Helen a driving force of Frank redemption. He makes this parallel himself when, despairing for Helen to listen to an apology, he asks her if she even understood the books she gave him to read. Helen may have loved the great literature’s portrayal of forgiveness and redemption but has a more difficult time living out those scenes in her own life. In contrast, Moris never picks up a book, but instinctively does the “right thing”, and is generous to a fault. This was my second Malamud novel (The Natural being the first) and I do plan to add some of his others to my to-read list.
As a side note, the publishers played a trick on me. The cover of the book says “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction,” which I took to mean that the book had won the prize. Wrong. Malamud won the prize for his novel The Fixer. Sneaky…