Facing Failure: A Levinasian Reading of Bernard Malamud’s Fiction – Part III

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One of the most important things about Frank is his timing. To be sure, Frank comes out of nowhere. But he does so after Bober is held-up, beaten with a gun, and hospitalized. He comes, like a Saint, to assist him. However, as a reader, one cannot help but wonder if Frank, who is described as a saintly and yet very dark person, was in someway involved in the heist.   But before we can even have this thought, Malamud shows us how generous Frank is.

To be sure, after Frank meets Morris Bober for the first time, he starts coming every morning and helping the grocer out. And, after helping every morning for a few weeks, he eventually asks him for a job (40).   And although Ida, Bober’s wife, is skeptical, Bober, being an “honest man” (and lest we not forget, a schlemiel), opens his arms Frank. Like Abraham in the Torah/Bible, Bober wants to help a stranger:

“Because somebody is a stranger don’t mean that ain’t honest,” answered the grocer. “The subject don’t interest. Interests me what you can learn here. Only one thing” – he pressed his hand to his chest – “a heartache.” (40)

Frank, in the most caring way, tells Bober that he will assist him until Bober gets better.   And things seem to be fine. However, as time passes Bober bears witnesses, to his chagrin, to the fact that Frank may really not be so honest. When, one night, Bober is closing down, he discovers Alpine is sleeping in the basement of his store. Bober asks him why he was down there and then springs a question on Frank regarding a theft: “Did you steal from me my milk and rolls?” Frank admits to stealing from Bober and said he did so because he was hungry. Bober asks Alpine why he didn’t ask him, and Frank gives an odd answer; namely, that he can take care of himself.

When Bober asks Frank why he didn’t stay with his sister, we learn that Frank lied: he doesn’t have a sister (51).   And this isn’t an insignificant detail. To be sure, Frank told Bober, when he first met him, that he was an orphan who went from home to home and eventually ran away to live the life of a homeless person.   Yet, somehow, he slipped a bit about staying with his sister to Bober. Now, he says, quite frankly: “I have no sister. That was a lie I told you. I am alone by myself”(51).   Confused, Bober asks him why and Frank tells him that he lied because he didn’t want Bober to think he “was a bum”(51). Bober, seeing Frank hungrily eat the food he stole, feels compassion for Frank’s poverty and seems to forget about the lie.

But in the midst of this conversation between Frank and Bober, Ida, Bober’s wife, comes downstairs to see what all the fuss is in the basement. As a result of her prompting, Bober tells Frank to find another job. While Bober gives Frank some slack, his wife doesn’t. She wants him out of her cellar and the store, but Bober, in defiance of Ida, lets him stay…even after he lied to him. And here we see the honest, saintly nature of the schlemiel.   Like Gimpel, in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” Bober overlooks lies and deception because he, like Singer’s schlemiel, thinks that will prompt Frank to be more honest. However, as the novel goes on we see that Bober – much like Gimpel – is duped again and again.

Following this incident, Frank makes great efforts to redeem himself and this proves successful. He shaves and, so to speak, cleans up his act. Bober, excited by the change going on and, apparently, attributing the increased sales to Frank, gives Frank a raise (68). However, “Frank felt troubled about the raise because he was earning something for his labor that Ida knew nothing of, for business was a little better than she thought”(68). He is troubled because, while all of this going on, he has been stealing and giving himself money under the table (68). And, after a while, his shame disappears: “He had nothing to be ashamed of, he thought – it was practically his own dough he was taking. The grocer and his wife wouldn’t miss it because they didn’t know they had it, and they wouldn’t have it if it weren’t for his hard work”(69). The rationalization of theft is only the tip of the iceberg.

Immediately following this moment, Malamud includes a flashback to the moment when Bober was beaten up. In this flashback, we learn that Frank, along with a person named Ward Minogue, was one of the people who robbed and beat Bober. We learn that Ward, Frank’s partner in crime, is clearly anti-Semitic and that he sees nothing wrong with stealing from a Jew and beating a Jew up. He sums up his attitude with the expression, “a Jew is a Jew.” Frank, pacing nervously around the block, remembers this moment and Ward’s voice when he went in that day to rob Bober:

He remembered thinking as they went into the store, a Jew is a Jew, what difference does it make? Now he thought, I held him up because he was a Jew. What the hell are they to me so that I can give them credit for it. (70)

At the point in the narrative, everything changes. As readers, our sympathy for “the assistant” diminishes. Yet, now we can understand why he showed up at Frank’s store. He wants to make amends. The fact that Frank may admire saints may show some hope, but now we can see that anti-Semitism may have prompted him to do the deed and commit the crime. Regardless of his intention to make amends, now we see that his going back to Bober to work for him still didn’t keep him from stealing. These new insights make Alpine’s character more complicated. And show us that, of the two, Bober, the schlemiel, may be the real saint.

Adding to this, Malamud has us bear witness to Frank’s thoughts as he walks through the city streets and remembers what he did. He is tortured about what he did and what he was at the time doing. But he gets away from these thoughts by going on a search for Ward (71).   When he meets him, he asks for his gun so he can hold-up “the Jew” Karp. But Ward refuses to give him back the gun. What, one wonders, is behind this request? Does Frank really want to hold up Karp, “the Jew”? What does he want to do with the gun?

Following this encounter, as readers, we are not sure if Frank is a different man. To be sure, he stays on. When he sees Ward a second time, he asks him to hold up Karp (143). Ward says that he can’t understand why Frank would want more money. Ward tells Frank that he was “sure you’d have saved up a pile by now, stealing from the Jew(143).   Frank doesn’t own up to the fact that he had been stealing. However, now he tells Ward that he doesn’t want to do any crime. He just wants his gun. In response, Ward threatens Frank by saying that if he won’t rob Karp, he wants a bribe. If Frank doesn’t give him money, he threatens that he will tell Bober and his wife that Frank has a crush on their daughter, Helen.

To add to the tension, Malamud notes that Ida tells Helen to stay away from Frank. In contrast, Bober looks the other way when he sees Frank kissing his daughter (148). In the face of this, he just shrugs his shoulders and adds, “So what is a kiss? A kiss is nothing”(149). He trusts Frank, but in doing so he doesn’t think about what is at stake if Frank wins her heart. On top of that, Karp wants his son to go out with Helen but Bober isn’t interested in having his daughter marry a man who is destined to success. He wants, first and foremost, an honest man. And for that reason, his wife thinks he is a schlemiel. Because Frank, to her mind, is far from honest. And, more importantly for her, he’s not Jewish, can’t make a real living, and will likely leave her and never come back to the area.

Meanwhile, we learn that Ida is not the only one who suspects Frank. Karp does too. Malamud points out how Karp knew that Frank was stealing from Bober and tried to convince Bober that something was amiss with Frank. But Bober, being the trusting schlemiel, will hear none of it:

Without doubt Morris kept Frank on to make his life easier, and probably, being Bober, he had no idea what was happening behind his back. Well, Julius Karp would warn him of his daughter’s danger. Tactfully he would explain him what was what. (151)

To be sure, it is Karp that brings everything down and exposes all of the things that Bober chooses not to see or knows nothing about.   Karp starts, in a Talmudic fashion, by asking Bober how his business improved: “How is this possible? You are maybe advertising in the paper?”(153). Bober’s responses to Karp show him sinking deeper and deeper into despair. Bober realizes that his success was based on the fact that he was willing to overlook things. Karp shows him that he, like a schlemiel, misunderstood what was going on:

Morris smiled at the sad joke. Where there was no wit money couldn’t but it. “By word of mouth,” he remarked, “is the best advertising.” “This is according to what the mouth says.” “It says,” Morris answered without shame, “that I got a fine clerk who has pepped me up the business. Instead going down in the winter, every day goes up.” “Your clerk did this? Karp said, thoughtfully scratching under one buttock.” “The customers like him. A goy brings goyim.” “New customers?” “New, old.” “Something else helps you also?”(153)

Bober then goes right to it and say what he really believes about Frank: the “most important help to me is Frank.” “Astonished,” Karp tells Bober that he has been duped. The reason whey he was doing so well was because Schmitz, the German grocery store owner in the neighborhood, was sick and had cut his hours in half (154). Bober was getting his business.   And then Karp delivers the final blow; namely, that Schmitz’s business was already auctioned off to hard working Norwegians. They would end up wiping him out financially. His business would go down hill very soon. After hearing this, Bober is demolished:

Morris, with clouded eyes, died slowly. Karp, to his horror, realized he had shot at the clerk and wounded the grocer….The grocer wasn’t listening. He was thinking of Frank with a violent sense of outrage, of having been deceived. (155)

But, in the face of this calamity, we see that Frank has change of heart.   The more time Frank spends with Bober, seeing Bober suffer, the more moral he becomes. To be sure, Bober becomes, for Frank, a kind of saint or what Edith Wyschogrod would call a saintly “sample.” But this saint is more like a schlemiel-saint than a Christian-saint.

…to be continued

 

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