Novels and Stories of the 1940s & 50s
The Natural • The Assistant • 25 stories
“His prose—spare, at once self-consciously anachronistic and timeless, rich in undertones and cast in endless shades of brown and grey—is unlike anything else in the English language.”—Rachel Donadio, Tablet Magazine
Eulogizing him in 1986, Saul Bellow pronounced that Bernard Malamud “in his novels and stories discovered a sort of communicative genius in the impoverished, harsh jargon of immigrant New York. He was a myth maker, a fabulist, a writer of exquisite parables.” With this volume, The Library of America initiates a three-volume edition celebrating, in Bellow’s words, “a rich original of the first rank.”
At age thirty-eight, after a long apprenticeship writing stories, Bernard Malamud published his first book, The Natural (1952), and instantly redefined the possibilities of sports fiction. Reimagining the colorful characters and storied episodes of baseball lore, Malamud imbued the tale of Roy Hobbs—a once promising prospect whose first chance at a big-league career had been sabotaged by a deranged female fan—with the grandeur of myth. Armed with Wonderboy, his beloved bat, Roy leads his New York Knights in an unlikely run at the league pennant. The quest leads him ever deeper into a thicket of intrigue involving the team’s venal owner, the manager’s irresistible niece, and Roy’s own insatiable appetites.
The son of a cash-strapped Brooklyn grocer, Malamud transformed the bleak world of his youth into fiction in his next novel, The Assistant (1957). Aging shopkeeper Morris Bober has sunk his entire life into a modest grocery that has long been on the verge of failure. An armed robbery at the store seems another crushing blow, yet it brings about a change more momentous than he could have expected when one of the perpetrators, a drifter from the West named Frank Alpine, is shaken with remorse and comes to work for Morris. Within the confines of the claustrophobic storefront and the surrounding neighborhood, Malamud creates a riveting drama about suffering, endurance, and the possibility of redemption.
“I have discovered a short-story writer who is better than any of them, including myself,” Flannery O’Connor wrote in 1958 after reading Malamud’s first story collection, The Magic Barrel, which won the first of his two National Book Awards. This Library of America volume presents Malamud’s complete short fiction of the 1940s and 50s: twenty-five stories and the first chapter of an unfinished novel. In the taut prose of tales such as “The Bill,” “The Loan,” and “The Cost of Living,” Malamud explored the close-to-the-bone world of the Brooklyn he knew. As he evolved as a writer his stories became more surreal and fantastic, perhaps most unforgettably in the masterpiece “The Magic Barrel.” Several beguiling tales set in Italy, inspired by his year in Rome in 1956–57, show Malamud making his distinctive contribution to the enduring theme of the American abroad, and reveal yet another facet of his development as a storyteller.
Philip Davis, editor, is the author of the definitive biography Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life (2007). He is the editor of The Reader magazine and Professor of English Literature and Director of the Centre for Research into Reading, Information and Linguistic Systems at the University of Liverpool.
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