Bernard Malamud: The Assistant
Critics have once again offered varying interpretations of Malamud’s work. In this one, Morrie has been identified with Jesus and Frank with St. Francis. Alternatively, we can get back to the Arthurian legend, with Morrie’s wound making him a Fisher King. However, it is frankly best to read this story as Malamud’s standard theme of the schlemiel struggling in a difficult world.
Morris Bober emigrated to Brooklyn from Russia. He married Ida and opened a grocery store. Unfortunately, they now have competition from a store across the street. The novel starts off with their being robbed. Morrie is knocked unconscious during the robbery. Soon after, Frank Alpine appears and helps Morrie next morning. He offers to work for free to learn the job but is turned down. He starts sleeping in Morrie’s cellar and stealing bread and milk from Morrie. When Morrie hurts himself, Frank steps in and works in the shop while Morrie recovers. Frank brings in more money than Morrie and when Morrie recovers, he offers Frank a job. However, we now learn that Frank has been stealing from the shop and, as we had guessed, was one of the robbers from the beginning of the book.
Frank starts dating Helen, Morrie and Ida’s daughter. However, Morrie is now convinced Frank is stealing money. Frank puts some of the money back but then, when he needs some to go out in the evening, takes a dollar from the till. Morrie sees him and fires him. Frank then goes to meet Helen in the park. He sees one of her former boyfriends, Ward, trying to rape her. He rescues her and then rapes her himself. However, Frank again takes over the store when Morrie is in hospital but Morrie throws him out when he returns from hospital. After contemplating an insurance scam, and nearly burning himself, he gets an offer for the store but gets pneumonia when shovelling snow without a coat and then dies. Frank takes over and starts to become more like Morrie, even converting to Judaism.
Morrie is, of course, as his name implies a moral man. He tries to do the right thing, though his circumstances sometimes make this difficult. However, whenever he contemplates doing the wrong thing – selling the store under false pretences or burning it down, for example – he backs away. In short, he is no saint and certainly not Jesus but a man who struggles with the real world but, in the end, does the right thing even if there is a bitter price to pay for doing so.
First published 1957 by Farrar, Straus & Cudahy