The Tenants – 3/5 Stars
This is a troubling novel that is sometimes brilliant and amazing, and sometimes too awkward and awful for words. We meet Lesser, a 36 year old novelist living in a tenement in the Bronx. His landlord would love to tear down the building, and offers repeatedly to buy Lesser out of his rent-controlled, but Lesser wants to finish his third novel first, something that might take only a few more months or forever. So he’s the last holdout. One day he sees one of the downstairs offices contains a small wooden table, a typewriter, and a yellowing manuscript. Lesser is confronted by the owner of these items, a Black man about his age name Willie Spearmint. Willie is filled with rage and distrust, and as the two become more acquainted Lesser learns Willie is a would-be novelist. They circle each other here and there and eventually, having read Lesser’s first novel and liking it, decides to ask Lesser to read his work. Further tension arises as both Lesser and Willie can’t determine what value or expertise Lesser is exactly able to bring to his reading.
As this happens Lesser and Willie (who becomes through his writing Bill Spear) enter into a furthering tense psycho-sexual relationship (in which Lesser sleeps with a Black friend of Willie as well as Willie’s white girlfriend) and the novel begins roiling to a large confrontation.
So as you can imagine, while there’s a lot of really interesting conversations about race and art and difference, this novel struggles to find authentic representation. It might even be so brilliant I can’t figure it out — ie is the novel failing on its own, or is the novel failing to represent Willie in exactly the same ways Willie tells Lesser that white writers can’t narrate Black experience? So at times, it’s rough going, and it’s hard to figure when and where this is a limit or a failure, as the novel often says the thing I feel, soon after feeling it.
Idiots First – 4/5 Stars
I keep finding myself incredibly engaged and impressed by Bernard Malamud’s short stories. He works in some fascinating ways, almost creating cycles of stories the revisit and replay and rework ideas from other stories, and chapters from novels. So in this second collection (after his National Book Award winner The Magic Barrel) we get further stories about Fidelman, the young hapless art student living and working in Italy. These stories do actually become a story cycle as a kind of novel in stories called Pictures of Fidelman later on. There was something in water in the 60s and 70s about making not only a kind of stand-in for the author (Zuckerman and Kepesh by Philip Roth; Henry Bech by John Updike) but also publishing them in a novel form.
Anyway, the stories here run from the early 1950s through the early 1960s. These are mostly short short stories (10-20 pages max) with no longer stories. In addition, we get a range of kinds of stories. With the Fidelman stories we get a series of contemporary stories that confront the realities of post-war America (or at least post-war Americans). With stories like “The Jewbird” we get another of Malamud’s penchants, classic Jewish fables (remixed in a post-modern flair) ala Isaac Singer or Sholem Aleicham. Throughout the collection there’s a tension that punctuates a lot of mid-century American writing between the pre-war and post-war periods, and in the tradition of Jewish American fiction between the Old World and the New World implied by these differences.
Rembrandt’s Hat – 4/5 Stars
This is a different collection, though some of the stories do hit at some of the same themes and ideas from Idiots First. The first, most obvious difference here is that these stories are more than a decade later, and the shift in consciousness in American literature from the 1960s through the 1970s is apparent here. These are more of the kind of dinner party and grad school and upper West side stories we associate with the New Yorker in the 1970s and 1980s. In addition, these are longer, more thoughtful and contemplative stories. The longest story in the collection is also the best “The Man in the Drawer” is more of a novelette in length, and follows an American writer on a cultural exchange to USSR in the 1970s. He meets a vociferous taxi driver who also ends up being a “drawer writer”, a writer who writes not exactly anti-Soviet writing, but writing that might put him in danger. Soviets banned sentimental writing a lot of time as it looked backwards. The American finds himself in the terrible position of being able to offer a service to the driver, to take his work back to America, despite really not wanting to. So this tension carries us through a series of interactions.