Fucking hell. This has to be a contender for the most miserable novel of all time. In fact, only Germinal by Emile Zola could legitimately wrench the title from its grasp, and that book is so monumentally bleak that there are probably Goth kids right now reading it backwards. Tellingly, both Germinal and The Assistant deal with poverty. Of course there are a lot of really terrible things that can happen to a human being, but the constant worry, shame and ill-health caused by having no money is a particularly potent kind of misery. I know, i’ve been there. I was raised without prospects, in dire poverty. It was the kind of situation where if we ate well – my brother and I – then our mother could not, because she couldn’t afford to; if she bought us shoes, she went without. A lot of the time I was unhappy, and scared. Everything was strained. I lived constantly on the look out for the next disaster…bailiffs trying to kick the door down, the flat we lived in going up in flames, my mother being arrested. There was always the heavy, sour smell of hopelessness in the air.
So I know how the characters in this novel feel. In fact, of all the books I have read this one perhaps hit me the hardest. I kind of ached, due to force of that blow, all the way through. It’s therefore a tough book to review. Morris Bober, Helen Bober, and Frank Alpine felt extraordinarily real to me. Part of that is due to uncontrollable associations, i.e. who I am and my experiences, and part of it – the larger part – is down to Malamud, the author. The Assistant is brilliant. I would hope I would think it brilliant even if I had grown up in a mansion somewhere, with millionaire parents. Yet on the surface, the book couldn’t be less appealing. Just ignore the misery for a second, because I know some of y’all will dig that kind of thing anyway, and consider the basic plot: The Assistant is about a Jewish grocery store owner, Morris Bober, whose business is failing. One day he is robbed at gun point. One of the assailants, Frank Alpine, to some extent due to a guilty conscience, returns to the store and starts working there. That’s it, pretty much.
You may think I have given too much away, but I haven’t really. Frank’s involvement is clear, even, surely, to the most dim-witted reader. What is special about the book, however, is not the plot, but the characters and their relationships with each other. in a way, Bober and Frank represent two types of attitude towards poverty and bad luck. I have seen these types myself, have been one of them. There is the Bober-type, who suffers almost heroically. He takes and takes, everything. Willingly, albeit not happily. Frank is a different sort; he is my sort. Frank can’t accept his lot, can’t press on stoically into the oncoming blizzard of misfortune that claws at his face; no, he writhes under the pressure. He has to change his luck, has to force a change. And this makes him skittish and restless, which leads to poor judgement. Frank is wild, he is in agony; and yet he wishes he were the Bober-type, he wishes he could accept his fate. He tries, but he can’t control his anguish, and so he does wrong, consistently. And always regrets it. People like Frank, people like myself, always do.* Helen Bober, Morris’ daughter, is a little bit like her father, and a little bit like Frank. She too is restless, she too wants to change her life or change her fate. Unlike Frank, however, she is not wild, she has strong values; she wants to make a change by educating herself. Helen’s story is probably the most heartbreaking of all.
The Assistant, I imagine it is quite clear by now, is a book about suffering, but it is also, perhaps more interestingly, about making amends, about forgiveness and redemption. Helen, Frank and Morris: these three characters need each other, if not literally, then symbolically. Morris sees Frank as his saviour, because when Frank starts working at the store the takings improve. Helen sees him as her saviour also, but not in the same way. not financially. She believes that his love will save her, that by loving him and helping him to better himself she will free herself from her awful situation. Frank, on the other hand, looks first to Morris, then to Helen, as a saviour; by helping the grocer he thinks he can prove that he is a good man and not a low-down hoodlum, by loving Helen that he is, in fact, capable of love and capable of a genuine, nice and normal relationship. This complex web of relations, and hopes and dreams, is almost comical, because none of them have any basis in reality. No one can save Morris’ business, no one can redeem Frank, and there is no white knight coming to lift Helen up on his horse and ride off with her for new, more prosperous and happier lands.
All of this talk about salvation and redemption might give the impression that The Assistant is a religious text. It is, in a way. But not overtly, never in a heavy-handed manner. Malamud certainly has something to say about Jewishness, but not necessarily Judaism. Frank is openly, in the beginning, an anti-semite, but his dislike of Jews is racially-motivated, rather than born out of religious conflict. Malamud, to my mind, does seem to be suggesting that Morris is a typical Jew, i.e. eternally suffering, but the grocer isn’t a practicing Jew, he doesn’t go to synagogue etc. Redemption and salvation are religious concepts, but they are human issues. The Assistant is an unrelentingly human book. In terms of the prose, it is not flashy or eye-catching, but it is wonderful. The first couple of pages alone throw up numerous gems, like when Morris lets a woman have some items without paying but doesn’t want to tell his wife he has done so. Malamud writes:
he found a pencilled spot on the worn counter and wrote a sum under “Drunk Woman.” The total now came to $2.03, which he never hoped to see. But Ida [his wife] would nag if she noticed a new figure so he reduced the amount to $1.61. His peace – the little he lived with – was worth forty-two cents.
There are even times when Malamud manages, to my relief, to wring some comedy out of the excruciating, suffocating horror. It’s a grim, black kind of humour, sure, but it is humour nonetheless.
Despite all of my gushing The Assistant is not a perfect book, there are one or two issues or, if you like, boom moments. To speak about them, however, would mean revealing important details, so if you wish to avoid serious spoilers then stop reading here. There is a rape scene in the book, which involves Helen and Frank. I hate rape scenes in anything, but it is not gratuitous. The problem is that Frank saves Helen [there’s that salvation stuff again] from being raped, only to then, seconds later, rape her himself. I really didn’t like that. It made no sense. Malamud was setting Frank up to be flawed, yes, but to rape someone you have saved from being raped is monstrous; it is difficult to feel anything but repugnance for Frank after that, when one felt at least some sympathy for him before. Having said that, maybe that was Malamud’s intention; maybe he wanted to show that a man cannot change his character, that a bad man will always be bad, but I really don’t think so. I think he just took the misery, the life-is-a-bitch schtick a step too far. Furthermore, I am in two minds about Frank’s conversion to Judaism, although, again, I guess I kinda get it, I get that Malamud was making a point about Jewish suffering and about identifying with victims etc. In any case, these two incidents could not spoil what was, for me, a truly fucking great book, an awful gut-wrenching masterpiece.
*I would like to point out that I have never done anything even close to as serious or reprehensible as the two crimes committed by Frank, one of which i consider to be absolutely unforgivable.