What can we forgive? Why do we suffer? When is it okay to date the boss's daughter?
These questions haunt Frank Alpine in Bernard Malamud's The Assistant. He's a troubled young man in need of a job and looking for some stability in his life. He finds unexpected opportunity at a small, family-owned grocery store in Brooklyn.
It, uh, also happens to be a store he helped rob. Like…with a gun. How does that work in the job interview? "I held your store up, sure, but I swear you can trust me." Have you ever been convicted of a felony? "Well, not convicted exactly." At least he could say he wasn't the one holding the gun.
The store is run by Morris Bober and his wife Ida. They are one of a few Jewish families living in the Brooklyn neighborhood where this story takes place. The times have not been good to them. They're struggling to stay open, and only the extra income brought in to the family by their daughter, Helen, keeps them from going under. The stress never ends.
Feeling guilty for the part he played in the robbery, Frank offers to help Morris manage the business. No, he doesn't admit his involvement in the crime. Not right away, anyway.
Morris declines the offer. He sees the grocery store business as a prison, and he doesn't want anyone else locked up. Also, Frank is—to put it nicely—less than trustworthy. He's been stealing milk and rolls from Morris and sleeping in his cellar. However, just when it looks like we won't have a story about an assistant, Morris is injured on the job and Frank assumes his place while he recovers.
At first, Frank's assistance looks like it's a blessing. Business improves substantially. But his presence does have its drawbacks, big time. He's secretly stealing money from the register and has taken a romantic interest in Helen against the wishes of Morris and Ida. Can you say suspense?
This novel isn't just a business drama, and it isn't just a family drama. It's business and personal.
The Assistant is also a moving—and at times disturbing—tale of passion and regret, love and lust, forgiveness and hatred, desperation and broken dreams. Frank, Morris, and Helen are as real as any fictional characters you're ever likely to meet. While The Assistant is not necessarily a feel-good novel, you might find it surprisingly inspirational.
We all suffer, but why? And why do some people suffer more than others? The characters in The Assistant live and ponder this mystery, but they don't find any final answers. Sure, sometimes good choices turn a profit and bad decisions result in disaster, but sometimes the good die young, dishonest people thrive, and wounded souls cannot escape their burdens no matter how hard they try. It's unfair; it's a bummer, and it often makes no sense!
Morris Bober and his wife Ida own a failing grocery store. They see it as a prison. How's that for dark? Their adult daughter Helen would love to go to college but has to work to help support her parents. Their son died from illness. They are Jews, a people who have suffered horribly in their history, and are aware of how much they've endured. Anti-Semitism contributes to their poor business—and to their store getting robbed.
Morris can't make sense of his suffering, but he's resigned to it and accepts it as the cost of caring for others. Morris has found a way to make his suffering meaningful rather than absurd. His answer may not satisfy the philosophers, but it gives him the strength to be compassionate, kind, and honest even when it hurts. He's a good man, that Morris.
Reading The Assistant may not give you clarity as to why suffering afflicts the human condition and why people seem not to suffer equally. Who can? You will, however, gain insight into the ordinarily heroic struggle against life's disappointments and injustices we all know all too well.
Just as important, the novel is a realistic look at the plight of Jewish immigrants in mid-twentieth century New York. Real people have suffered the trials endured by Morris, Ida, Helen, and Frank. The author of the novel, Bernard Malamud, experienced them himself.
All in all, this is a story about struggle: the struggle to endure, the struggle to thrive, and ultimately, the struggle to keep a darn grocery store afloat. And as we all know…the struggle is real.
Britannica in Brooklyn
The Encyclopedia Britannica entry on The Assistant.
What You Need to Know
A reference page by Georgetown University on reading and understanding Malamud.
The Israeli Prime Minister Plays Morris
Armin Mueller-Stahl, who played the Israeli Prime Minister on The West Wing, took on the role of Morris in this film by Daniel Petrie.
New York Times Obituary of Bernard Malamud
Mervyn Rothstein remembers the great storyteller.
Reviews! We've Got Reviews!
A collection of book reviews of Malamud's various works.
I Volunteer as Tribute!
The Center for Fiction tribute to Bernard Malamud. Includes a recording of the author reading his work.
A public domain portrait of author Bernard Malamud