By Ira Mark Milne
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Extra info for Novels for Students Vol 27
Morris still thinks of Ephraim; the loss of his son has left a hole in his life that has never been filled. Frank, for his part, is an orphan. His mother died giving birth to him, and his father left him when he was only five years old. Given their personal histories, it is perhaps natural that Morris and Frank are drawn to each other in the cramped prison of the grocery store. They are ready to serve a need in the other, whether that need is consciously acknowledged or not. Morris, for all his complaints about his life, possesses wisdom born of suffering; Frank, who is probably about the age Ephraim would have been, is an ignorant man badly in need of a guiding hand.
The stammering of inspired witnesses’’ record the mystery Malamud exhumes in the dialogue above. The Hasidim tell the story of Rabbi Aaron of Karlin, who, desiring to greet a friend a long way from his home, set out one day to reach him. ’’ Rabbi Aaron answered, ‘‘I,’’ and was refused admission. Returning to his home, Rabbi Aaron spent a year grieving and considering what had passed. At the end of this time he set out again for the home of his friend. ’’ This time Rabbi Aaron answered, ‘‘Thou’’ and was admitted.
But The Assistant is not a folktale or a myth. It is not, like Malamud’s first novel, The Natural, a story of magic through and through. Instead Malamud waits until the reader is drawn into a real frame before he begins without warning to distort that frame. Malamud creates a real frame by giving us perfectly plausible motives for Frank’s appearance and desire to remain in the store: at first we see this as guilt at his thievery and pity for Morris; and then, when this wears thin, the author introduces the attraction to Helen, Morris’s daughter.