Ever since I read Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer (my review here) and learned that Nathan Zuckerman’s reclusive literary father-figure E.I. Lonoff was likely inspired by Roth’s own affection for Bernard Malamud, I’ve been wanting to find out why Roth, a master, would consider Malamud a master. Where better to start than with his book that garnered the rare combination win of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize: The Fixer? (Only a few other books of fiction have won both awards: The Shipping News (1993), The Color Purple (1983), Rabbit Is Rich (1982), The Stories of John Cheever (1981); The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1966), A Fable (1955); Gravity’s Rainbow (1975) was close.) So, with Roth and the big awards, the book has a lot going for it. Good thing, too, because I certainly think the cover condemns it to be purchased only by those who have heard a good word about it.
The Fixer begins by introducing thirty-year-old Yakov Bok, a Jew suffering in a Jewish settlement in 1911 Tsarist Russia. His wife left him a few months before the book begins, and we meet a depressed Yakov packing his tools (he’s the eponymous fixer) preparing to leave the settlement. His father-in-law tries to talk Yakov into staying in the settlement with his own where he will be safe from the Jew-hating Russians. But Yakov knows the safety is merely illusion that evaporates when the Cassocks come; pogroms have a way of finding their way even into the settlements. Yakov’s father was killed in an earlier pogrom (probably the one from 1881-1884) when a man went out to kill the first three Jews he saw and Yakov’s father was the second. And only a few years before, in 1903-1906, an even bloodier pogrom had occurred (here is a link to a New York Times article about a particular riot in 1903; scroll to the bottom to see the relevant article).
Still, while these Jewish settlements were not safe, it was a bit safer to be in them than outside them in day-to-day life. Yakov doesn’t care anymore. He wants to go to Kiev to find a better life. He almost gets it, too. After saving a wealthy owner of a brick-making plant, Yakov is offered a job supervising shipping and keeping the ledger. It’s complicated, though, because Yakov does not admit he is a Jew; his new employer is a member of the Black Hundreds, and he wants Yakov to live in a district where it is illegal for a Jew to reside. The anxiety is so great Yakov cannot sleep at night, but he lies about his name and accepts the offer.
Soon a young Russian boy turns up dead in a cave. Yakov’s Jewish identity comes out, and, claiming that Yakov committed a ritual murder to recreate the crucifixion or fulfill some Jewish rite or torture for the sake of torturing or collect blood for passover matsos or whatever, the state arrests Yakov.
There are those among us, my children, who will argue that these are superstitious tales of a past age, yet the truth of much I have revealed to you — I do not say it is all true — must be inferred from the very frequency of the accusations against the Jews.
It sounds ridiculous, but we know well how true to life this situation was (is?). Indeed, this book is based on a historical event. Yakov is based on the real Mendel Beilis, who was imprisoned for the murder of the young Andrei Yushchinsky (now considered a saint by many Orthodox Christians). Unable to create a solid case, the state refused to indict Beilis/Yakov, but he remained in prison indefinitely while the state hoped for a confession of some type.
The first sixty or so pages of the book, while compelling, are basically straight narrative, and Malamud does little to show off his command of style. However, as Yakov’s time in prison draws out, and Yakov himself begins to lose his place in his own narrative while getting engulfed in history’s, Malamud creates this sensation for the reader with virtuosity. For example, ninety-nine percent of the book is told in the third person. But suddenly we get a short chapter in the first person. The next chapter begins in the second person:
But now I look at it like this: She had tied herself to the wrong future.
You wait. You wait in minutes of hopes and days of hopelessness.
Furthermore, most of the book takes place in a prison cell where a man simply waits. Malamud makes us feel the passage of time and its effect on the prisoner, but it never gets old (for the reader). Malamud keeps the narrative moving while adding segments where the form makes the reader stop to consider the passage of time:
Thus the days went by. Each day went by alone. It crawled along like a dying thing. Sometimes, if he thought about it, three days went by, but the third was the same as the first. It was the first day because he could not say that three single days, counted, came to something they did not come to if they were not counted. One day crawled by. Then one day. Then one day. Never three.
Malamud’s characters are full, realistic portraits of conflicted human beings. They are inspiring and heroic or repulsive and evil without being elevated to the unreal. Their interactions (and the results) are as intricately drawn as anything Dickens could dream up but without that feeling of convenience so common in Dickens; on the contrary, this book feels at once unbelievable and entirely real.
And as far as Roth connections go, Malamud also explicitly analyzes how history overtakes individuals.
Once you leave you’re out in the open; it rains and snows. It snows history, which means what happens to somebody starts in a web of events outside the personal. It starts of course before he gets there. We’re all in history, that’s sure, but some are more than others, Jews more than some.
Malamud is often included with Roth and Bellow as being one of the three largest figures in American Jewish literature in the mid- to late-twentieth century (sorry to Norman Mailer, though one of his nonfiction pieces, The Armies of the Night (1968), won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize). But Malamud has, to a degree, been lost in the cracks. Bellow studies are strong in universities, and his books regularly take up a shelf in bookstores. Roth is still a best-selling author whose books take up even more shelves in bookstores. With Malamud, however, sometimes I’ve struggled to find any of his books in the bookstore, and I never heard of a Malamud conference when I was in academia (not to say there isn’t one, but if there is it isn’t a large point on the radar).
I’m trying to figure out why this is so. Is it justified? While I thought The Fixer was an enjoyable book, a fantastic book, a stylistic book, an important — even vital — book, I don’t think it is as complicated or nuanced as Roth and Bellow. Perhaps that’s why he’s slipping away. Then again, this is the only one I’ve read, and I plan on doing my part to keep him around by reading his entire oeuvre.