Novels by Bernard Malamud

Last modified on December 5, 2000

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        He [Frank] asked her [Helen] what book she was reading.
        "The Idiots. Do you know it?"
        "No. What's it about?"
        "It's a novel."
        "I'd rather read the truth," he said.
        "It is the truth."

The Assistant

Novels by Bernard Malamud:

[The Natural] [The Assistant] [A New Life] [The Fixer]

[Pictures of Fidelman] [The Tenants] [Dubin's Lives] [God's Grace]

[The People]

Click on the red ball of each book to go back to the top.
The Natural. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952.
  • Major Characters:
    • Roy Hobbs: The protagonist of the novel. He is the "natural" of baseball. In "Pre-game," the first section, or a long prologue, of the novel, he is a 19-year-old pitcher travelling from Oregon to Chicago to have a try-out with the Cubs.
      In "Batter Up!" the main narrative, he debuts in the game at the age of 34 as a Babe-Ruth-like mythic left fielder of the New York Knights with his miraculous self-made bat, "Wonderboy," in order to realize his dream to become "the best there ever was in the game."
    • Sam Simpson: Roy's father-like scout in "Pre-game."
    • Harriet Bird: Roy's temptress with a hat box in "Pre-game."
    • Whammer: The American league's leading hitter Roy strikes out in "Pre-game."
    • Max Mercy: A sports reporter who keeps mercilessly harassing Roy.
    • Pop Fisher: The manager of the New York Knights. A Fisher King figure if you take this novel as a myth.
    • Red Blow: A coach of the New York Knights.
    • Memo Paris: A spoiled niece of Pop Fisher. A Harriet Bird in "Batter Up!"
    • Bump Baily: A leading hitter of the Knights. Memo's lover who fatally crashes against the wall trying to catch an outfield fly.
    • Iris Lemon: A 33-year-old "grandmother" who saves Roy out of his slump. She says to Roy:
      "We have two lives, Roy, the life we learn with and the life we live with after that. Suffering is what brings us toward happiness."
    • Judge Goodwill Banner: The owner of the Knights who seems to be living in the "tower."
    • Gus Sands: "The Supreme Bookie" who offers Roy to throw the final decisive game for a bribe.
    • Otto P. Zipp: A dwarf. A fanatic fan of Bump who hates Roy.
  • Chronology of Events:
  • Themes:

The Assistant. New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1957.
  • Major Characters
    • Frank Alpine: The protagonist of the novel. A young gentile wanderer "of Italian extraction" from San Francisco, who once comments on St. Francis of Assisi [note the affinity of the names!] as follows:
      "He was a great man.... For instance, he gave everything away that he owned, every cent, all his clothes off his back. He enjoyed to be poor. He said poverty was a queen and he loved her like she was a beautiful woman."
      Frank is twenty-five but "looks older"; at first an "assistant" to Ward Minogue with whom he robs the poor grocer, then an "assistant" to Morris in the grocery. He stays on in the grocery, partly attracted by Morris's endurance, acceptance of life with all its hardships, and by his compassion, and by his religion, and partly attracted to Helen.
    • Morris Bober: A sixty-year-old poor Jewish owner of a small grocery store in New York, who opens his store at six o'clock every morning so that he may sell a three-cent roll to a Polish woman on her way to work. He is an immigrant from "old country" and speaks English with Yiddish accent. He is a "schlemiel" and his daughter thinks that
      luck and he were, if not natural enemies, not good friends. He labored long hours, was the soul of honesty--he could not escape his honesty, it was bedrock; to cheat would cause an explosion in him, yet he trusted cheaters--covered nobody's nothing and always got poorer. The harder he worked...the less he seemed to have.
      Yet Morris has a certain dignity, sometimes on the verge of sainthood, to which Frank is attracted. By hiring Frank as his assistant, he becomes an "assistant" to Frank's growth. Asked by Frank what it is to be a Jew, Morris answers:
      "My father used to say to be a Jew all you need is a good heart.... The important thing is the Torah. This is the Law--a Jew must believe in the Law... This means to do what is right, to be honest, to be good. This means to other people. Our life is hard enough. Why should we hurt somebody else? For everybody should be the best, not only for you or me. We ain't animals. This is why we need the Law. This is what a Jew believes."
      Frank goes on asking:
      "But tell me why it is that the Jews suffer so damn much, Morris? It seems to me that they like to suffer, don't they?"
               "Do you like to suffer? They suffer because they are Jews."
               "That's what I mean, they suffer more than they have to."
               "If you live, you suffer. Some people suffer more, but not because they want. But I think if a Jew don't suffer for the Law, he will suffer for nothing."
               "What do you suffer for, Morris?" Frank said.
               "I suffer for you," Morris said calmly.
               Frank laid his knife down on the table. His mouth ached. "What do you mean?"
               "I mean you suffer for me."
      A critic Peter L. Hays writes that "many readers have stumbled over the similarity in names--Martin Buber [a Jewish philosopher, famous for his book, I and Thou], Morris Bober--and there is also a distinct similarity, not only in the beliefs expressed and acted upon by these two men, but in the philosophy one can infer from the novel as a whole."
    • Helen Bober: Morris Bober's twenty-three-year-old daughter, whose aspiration is to go to college and study literature. To help support her family, she now works for an underwear company as a secretary. In spite of her initial misgivings, she is gradually drawn to Frank. Peeping at her in the bathroom, Frank notes that "her body was young, soft, lovely, the breasts like small birds in flight, her ass like a flower. Yet it was a lonely body in spite of its lovely form, lonelier." [St. Francis loved birds and flowers!]
    • Ida Bober: Morris Bober's nagging wife. She does not like Frank's presence in the store from the beginning. She becomes a "Jewish mother" when she finds out that Helen is dating with Frank.
    • Nick Fusso: Morris Bober's tenant.
    • Bessie Fusso: Nick's wife.
    • Julius Karp: The owner of a successful liquor store in the Bobers' neighborhood. It seems that Karp and luck are very good friends.
    • Louis Karp: Julius Karp's son. Helen's high school classmate and he likes her.
    • Sam Pearl: The owner of a candy store in the Bobers' neighborhood.
    • Nat Pearl: Sam Pearl's son, "magna cum laude, Columbia, now in his second year at law school." Helen was in love with him once.
    • Betty Pearl: Sam Pearl's daughter. Helen's friend.
    • Mr. Minogue: A "stocky, red-faced detective" investigating Morris' hold-up. A "soft-spoken, unsmiling man, bald, a widower who had once lived in this [the Bober's] neighborhood."
    • Ward Minogue: Mr. Minogue's son, who "had gone to Helen's junior high school, a wild boy, always in trouble for manhandling girls."
    • Breitbart: A bulb peddler. Almost a personification of Jewish suffering a la Malamud.
  • Chronology of Events:
  • Themes:

A New Life. New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1961.
  • Major Characters
    • Seymour Levin: The protagonist of the novel, thirty years old, usually called "S. Levin" [Implying St. Levin, only "t" missing?] by the narrator as in the beginning of the novel:
      S. Levin, formerly a drunkard, after a long and tiring transcontinental journey, got off the train at Marathon, Cascadia, towards evening of the last Sunday in August, 1950.
      Like Malamud himself, he finds a position of composition instructor at the Department of English at Cascadia College which is located in a small town in the Northwest, called Easchester, Cascadia, which, I think, is almost identical to Corvallis, Oregon, at least geographically. On the first evening he spends with the Gilleys at Easchester, a series of misfortunes happens to his pants. As a result, Levin is in a way forced by Pauline to change his trousers and even shorts and puts on Gerald's, an incident that foreshadows their future love triangle. Levin is a self-proclaimed romantic; he believes in liberal arts and fights quixotically for it, which makes him a nuisance in the conservative and lukewarmish department.
    • Gerald Gilley: Full Professor and the director of English Composition, English Department, at Cascadia College, whose research project at the moment is "A Picture Book of American Lit.", a project not unlike mine (i.e. this Malamud Homepage). Gilley, forty-five, is an outgoing person from South Dakota; his hobbies are fishing, hunting, golfing, and photography, hence "Got your picture!" in the end. His aspiration is to become the next head of the department, which reminds me of someone I know very well. He is "kind" to Levin in his own way but turns out to be Levin's worst enemy.
    • Pauline Gilley: Gerald Gilley's former student and now his wife, age: thirty-two. At his first glance, Levin notes that she is a "tall, flat-chested woman" and notes, a few hours later, that she has "big feet" but is attractive with shapely legs. Later, due to the "sad vicissitude of things," she tells Levin as follows:
      "I love you, Lev. That's my name for you. Sy is too much like sigh, Lev is closer to love. I love you, I'm sorry, you deserve better."
      Near the end of the novel, the reader will learn, thanks to Gilley, that living with his wife is generally "no bed of roses" with her unsteady, sporadic ways of housekeeping and with her mental and health problems, to which Levin replies: "I have never slept on flowers."
    • Erik Gilley: The Gilleys' adopted son whose first job is to pee on Levin's lap.
    • Mary Gilley: The Gilleys' adopted baby daughter.
    • Orville Fairchild: The head of the English Department. The author of a famed grammar text, The Elements of Grammar which, according to Gilley, "god knows how many editions has been through."
    • Joseph Bucket: An assistant professor of the English Department. He is building a house on his own and is working on a dissertation on Tristram Shandy. Levin's only friend in the department.
    • C. D. Fabrikant: An associate professor of the English Department. He is the "scholar" of the department.
    • Mrs. Beaty: Levin's 69-year-old landlady. A former grade-school teacher and now a widow of a carpenter for two years.
    • Sadek Abdul Meheen: Mrs. Beaty's other roomer. A Syrian graduate student from Damascus, fanatic about hygiene. He has guts to carry out his unique method of wooing girls.
    • Laverne: A waitress in a tavern Sadek woos. Somehow, Levin has the following conversation with her:
      "Your breasts," he murmured, "smell like hay."
      "I always wash well," she said.
      "I meant it as a compliment"....
      In front of cows, he thought. Now I belong to the ages.
      But he ends up almost half the night walking with her; she, with a bra, a horse blanket, and his pants on, and he, only having his shorts on.
    • Avis Fliss: An instructor of the English Department.
    • Nadalee Hammerstad: A very good girl [Oops!] in one of Levin's classes. She is attractive enough to have Levin take an ill-fated journey to the coast, an episode that will later be collected in A Malamud Reader.
    • George Bullock: An assistant professor of the English Department.
    • Leo Duffy: Levin's mysterious predecessor and "double" in the English Department who left from it a year before.
  • Chronology of Events:
  • Themes:

The Fixer. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966.
  • Major Characters
    • Yakov [Shepsovitch] Bok: The protagonist of the novel. Yakov, age thirty when the novel starts, is born and grows up in a shtetl, on which he comments as follows:
      "The shtetl is a prison, no change from the days of Khmelnitsky [a Cossack headman in the 17th Century]. It molders and the Jews molder in it. Here we're all it's time to try elsewhere I've finally decided.... All I've had in this miserable town is a beggarly existence. Now I'll try Kiev. If I can live there decently that's what I'll do. If not, I'll make sacrifices, save up, and head for Amsterdam for a boat to America."
      So he goes to Kiev and ironically ends up in a real prison for allegedly killing a Christian Russian boy for religious purposes. There begins his long and agonizing battle for justice to restore the freedom and the dignity of himself and, gradually he realizes, of his people. Hence his final insight:
               One thing I've learned, he thought, there's no such thing as an unpolitical man, especially a Jew. You can't sit still and see yourself destroyed.
      Although Yakov is a "fixer", or a carpenter, he likes reading, especially books by Spinoza and calls himself a "freethinker." He shaves off his beard after his wife runs away. Some critics point out that his surname "Bok" sounds like "Bock," a German word for a goat or an obstinate person, or like "Bog," the Russian word for Christ.
    • Raisl Bok: Yakov's unfaithful "faithless wife." She runs off with a stranger, probably a musician, after marrying Yakov for "five and a half years." Since she could not bear a child during that time, Yakov stopped sleeping with her. He starts to read Spinoza and other books every night as she later complains: "I slept with no one but you until you stopped sleeping with me. At twenty-eight I was too young for the grave."
      Like Pauline in A New Life, she is "dissatisfied" and "small-breasted" and, like Pauline and Levin, she and Yakov first make love "in the woods."
    • Shmuel: Raisl's faithful father, well over sixty years old. When Yakov shaves off his beard, Shmuel warns him: "Cut off your beard and you no longer resemble your creator." Though poor, he is religious and very kind to his son-in-law even after his daughter runs away and advises him not to leave and to "stay a Jew." When Yakov starts for Kiev, Shmuel hands Yakov's cloth bag containing phylacteries, prayer shawl, and prayer book to him, which Yakov left behind perhaps intentionally. Yakov drops this symbol of his Jewish identity into the Dnieper before entering Kiev.
    • Nikolai Maximovitch Lebedev: A member of the Black Hundreds, an anti-Semitic organization. Yakov saves him when he is drunk and fallen asleep on the snowy street of Kiev. To show his gratitude, he gives Yakov a job and later employs him as an "overseer" of his brick factory.
    • Zinaida Nokolaevna Lebedev: Nokolai Lebedev's daughter with a crippled leg. A "lonely woman" and she offers herself to show her gratitude--alas!--on a wrong occasion?!
    • Proshko: A foreman of the brick factory Nokolai Lebedev owns.
    • Zhenia Golov: A twelve-year-old Russian boy found dead after Passover. Reportedly, he had "thirty-seven wounds" and "had been stabbed to death and bled white, 'possibly for religious purposes'." Seeing the boy's picture in the newspaper, Yakov recognizes him as one of the two boys he had chased out of the brick factory yard.
    • Marfa Vladimirovna Golov: Zhenia Golov's mother.
    • B. A. Bibikov: The "Investigating Magistrate for Cases of Extraordinary Importance." The good guy.
    • Grubeshov: The "Prosecuting Attorney." The bad guy.
    • Kogin: A jailer.
    • Berezhinsky: A jailer.
    • Warden Grizitskoy:
    • Deputy Warden: A sadist?
    • Julius Ostrovsky: Yakov's lawyer.
  • Chronology of Events:
  • Themes:

Pictures of Fidelman: An Exhibition. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969.
  • Major Characters
    • Arthur Fidelman: The protagonist of the novel/stories.
  • Chronology of Events:
  • Themes:

The Tenants. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971.
  • Major Characters
    • Harry Lesser: The protagonist of the novel. A professional writer who is having trouble with the ending of his third novel about "love." He refuses to move from the top floor of an abandoned tenement despite the frequent requests from the landlord who wants to demolish the place and build a new building. Harry wants to finish his novel in the place where he had started writing it.
    • Willie Spearmint: A black writer, "between soul and revolution," who moves into the building to write "a black book."
    • Irene Bell: Willie's girl, a white and Jewish Off-Broadway actress.
    • Levenspiel: The landlord of the tenement.
  • Chronology of Events:
  • Themes:

Dubin's Lives. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979.
  • Major Characters
    • William B. Dubin: The protagonist of the novel. A fifty-six-year old biographer "with a bulge of disciplined belly" now working on the life of D. H. Lawrence. Grew up in "Newark and Bronx tenement" and now living in Center Campobello, located upstate NY close to the border of Vermont, for "a decade and a half." An author of four books when the novel starts: Short Lives, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and H. D. Thoreau. [He will write three other books, seven books in total, which coincides with Malamud's seven novels if we exclude Pictures of Fidelman and The People.] Awarded a "Medal of Freedom" from Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House in 1968 "for his achievement in the Art of Biography."
    • Kitty Dubin: William Dubin's wife. She is fifty-one but looks younger and has a cafe au lait birthmark on her buttock [symbolizing her defects?] but "her figure was good, despite large slender feet and thin shoulders." [Again a big-foot woman!] She remarried to Dubin when she was twenty-six, Dubin at thirty-one and Kitty's son Gerald at three.
    • Nathanael Willis: Kitty's former husband died of leukemia at forty.
    • Gerald Dubin: William Dubin's son fathered by Nathanael. He is a defector of Vietnam War and now lives in Stockholm, Sweden.
    • Maud Dubin: William Dubin's daughter.
    • Charlie Dubin: William Dubin's dead father. "Charlie-the-waiter."
    • Oscar Greenfeld: A professional flutist. William Dubin's old friend.
    • Myra Wilson: An old widow living on a farm in Vermont, a mile and a half from the Dubins. A friend of Kitty's; she takes care of the widow's shopping and attends her house.
    • Fanny Bick: A twenty-two-year old girl Dubin has an affair with. Her mother named her after Fanny Price in Jane Austin's Mansfield Park. Their first encounter takes place on a road when she asks him directions to town in her battered orange VW; she is then described as follows:
               The young woman begged his pardon in a voice he would surely have remembered, vaguely drawing down her skirt over bare thighs. She was braless, her face attractive; he had noticed a few darkish blond hairs on her chin. Her loose fair hair she wore long; the well-formed sturdy body was feminine, appealing. A half-eaten yellow pear lay on the seat beside her but if she had enjoyed the fruit it no longer showed.
      Dubin stammers out of context to her, "Be kind to yourself." [Already half eaten?]
      Her philosophy: "I just wanted to say that the real truth about my own sexual experience, at least as I am now, is that I have become a better person because of it." [A wry comment of one of my male students: "She is the best girl in Malamud's canon."]
    • Roger Foster: A young librarian who is in love with Fanny.
    • Evan Ondyk: A psychotherapist practicing in Center Campobello.
  • Chronology of Events:
  • Themes:

God's Grace. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982.
  • Major Characters
    • Calvin Cohn: The protagonist of the novel, whose former first name was "Seymour." A Jewish paleologist who had been deep under the sea making research at the moment of the thermo-nuclear war, and the only human survivor, due to the "minuscule error" of God. He attempts to create a new civilization on the island his ship Rebekah Q drifted to with somehow survived apes there that start learning to speak English after the total destruction of civilizations.
    • Buz: A "Christian" chimpanzee Cohn finds out in his ship. He had been trained to speak with a device in his throat by a German scientist, who had named him "Gottlob" [God's love?]. Like Adam in the Eden, Cohn gives a name to Buz and other apes. Buz plays a sort of cynical Friday's role for Cohn, a Robinson Crusoe.
    • George: A mysterious, but sometimes funny, gorilla that does not speak but loves to listen to the recorded prayer chants of Cohn's father, a rabbi. You may find in him a certain traits of Frank Alpine in The Assistant. Commenting on this bleakly pessimistic novel, Malamud once said that if the reader is "looking for a positive view," he "has to look around" this gorilla.
    • Mary Madelyn: A young female chimp who falls in love with Cohn. Because she is the one and the only survived female, her love and subsequent marriage to him causes troubles among the males.
    • Esau: A chimp boss who calls himself "Alpha Ape." Physically strong, but has a small brain unlike Buz.
    • The albino ape: A mysterious big white chimp that does not associate with other chimps. Just as Herman Melville's white whale, he is highly symbolic.
  • Chronology of Events:
  • Themes:

The People and Uncollected Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989.
  • Major Characters
    • Yozip Bloom: The protagonist of the novel. An "immigrant in search of his fortune who wanders through the West with a wagon and a horse named Ishmael" as a traveling peddler in the 1870s. Later becomes "Chief Jozip" of a native American tribe that calls itself "the People."
      The People begins like this:
      Here's Yozip rattling around in his rusty wagon.
               After escaping military service in the Old Country, he worked a year and bought the vehicle in St. Louis, Missouri. Yozip wore a Polish cap and trimmed his reddish beard every second week. Yet people looked at him as if he had just stepped out of steerage. An officious Jew he met in Wyoming told him he spoke with a Yiddish accent. Yozip was astonished because he now considered himself to be, in effect, a native. He had put in for citizenship the day after he had arrived in the New World, five years ago, and figured he was an American by now. He would know for sure after he had looked through the two or three official documents his cousin was keeping for him for when he got back from wherever he was going. He was going where his horse led him. They were drifting westward, a decent direction. Yozip thought himself as a traveler who earned his little living on the road.
  • Chronology of Events:
  • Themes:

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