The War of Camp Omongo
Seven Days of Mourning
Ome older Jewish writers clung to the panoramic chronicle because, in a rapidly dissolving scene, they were dominated by the urge to get it all down on paper. This is never to be despised, and personally I would rather have written The Rise of David Levinsky than most recent fiction. But as extra-literary social pressures have slackened, the gain in artistic range and depth has been unquestionable. The American-Jewish novelist has been emancipated; Bernard Malamud’s generation finally struck off the fetters of uncompromising naturalism, and younger men like Mr. Blechman and Mr. Simckes take their freedom for granted.
Still, whatever our theoretical reservations about the naturalistic novel, most of us demand from fiction a degree of verisimilitude. Symbols lose half their power when they are suspended in mid-air, instead of growing out of plausible necessity; when myths buttonhole us and introduce themselves, we shrink back. It has been Bernard Malamud’s particular triumph in his short stories to have succeeded not in abandoning naturalism but in crossing it with fantasy. His gloomy streets are no less familiar, no less firm underfoot because they are sometimes lit up by miracles. Typically, his characters are middle-aged, plain, wheezy, too careworn to bother about fine manners: when it itches, they scratch. However cabbalistic some of his devices, his work is heavy with the fatigue of the relentless modern city, where a complaint suggests, not a lament, but a chronic minor ailment.
Yet feelings flow freely in this prosaic world, for despite its life-like surfaces it is really a world of fable, where everything is simplified and compact. Not that the moral of a Malamud fable isn’t often unexpected or elusive, since a sophisticated modern mind is at work behind his stories even at their most archaic. Indeed, the more Malamud draws on legend and folklore, the more openly comic his anachronisms tend to become, while the irruption of the supernatural into his work usually brings with it a touch of outright farce. The title-piece of his new collection of short stories is as eerie as anything he has ever written: a dying man rushes round New York on a winter’s night trying to raise enough money to put his idiot son on the train to California. At the last minute his path is blocked by the angel of death, an implacable ticket-collector: “You ain’t the only one, my friend, some got it worse than you. That’s how it goes in this country.” The least suggestion of whimsy would spoil the scene, but the angel is, all too literally, in deadly earnest: we are made to share the choking rage which finally compels the sick father to wrestle with him. If he isn’t a figure of fun, however, he is undoubtedly funny, after a macabre fashion. So, too, with the tale of Schwartz, the talking blackbird, who is initially rejected (“Gevalt, a pogrom!”) and eventually destroyed by the owner of the apartment where he roosts. The purpose behind Malamud’s parable certainly isn’t droll—but while we’re at it I don’t see why we shouldn’t incidentally regard the idea of his Lower East Side delegate to the Parliament of Fowls as an excellent joke.
Malamud resorts to the supernatural more sparingly than is sometimes supposed; he has other, less obvious techniques for heightening his fable or inducing a sense of the uncanny. Take one of his briefest sketches, “The Cost of Living.” Thomashevsky, the owner of a small grocery store, is driven out of business when a supermarket opens next door, and that’s that. Why is this something more than a belated exercise in gritty social realism? Partly because the central characters are seen in stark isolation, alone with their fate; partly on account of the idiom, jagged everyday speech which suddenly glints with an unhackneyed image or a beguilingly “foreign” turn of phrase. Then there is the nightmare which stirs up Thomashevsky’s dark childhood fears, and the hovering ghostly presence of his departed neighbor, the ruined shoemaker Pellegrino. Most telling of all is the use made of color against a predominantly drab background. When the grocer first breaks the bad news to his wife, the tomato which she is eating turns “a deeper red.” From then on, throughout the story, red invariably denotes malevolence—in the scarlet streamers advertising the supermarket, for instance, or the red wart on the face of the business contact who lets Thomashevsky down. Finally, when the grocer admits defeat, an auctioneer moves into the shop with “a red auction flag that flapped and furled in the icy breeze as though it were a holiday.”
The motif lies embedded deep in Malamud’s story, and in a way it is unfair to subject him to this kind of explication, which smacks of a lesson for beginners in the dread Creative Writing course. He is intent on his theme, not on fancy trimmings. The supermarket spells death, death to the Thomashevskys, at any rate. It is striking how many of Malamud’s characters are self-employed, craftsmen or petty traders: they are at one with their occupations, which are usually the first thing we learn about them, quite abruptly, as though the author were taking a census. The impersonal or over-organized is always seen as the enemy, as in “The Maid’s Shoes,” where a dry stick of a professor calmly decides to keep relations with his Italian servant “on an objective level”—“I am sympathetic to your condition but I don’t want to hear about it.”
Compared with an older writer like Agnon, who is soaked in the culture of the ghetto and uses it much more directly, Malamud can’t altogether escape from an air of living on borrowed piety. But this is inherent in his situation: what is remarkable is the firmness and delicacy of touch with which he has reshaped traditional materials. At the same time he is ranging further afield and developing fresh aspects of his craft. Two new stories re-introduce Fidelman, the expatriate student of “The Last Mohican.” Fidelman is Malamud’s portrait of the unsuccessful artist as a young masochist, gradually adapting himself to such unforeseen roles as those of forger and father confessor. Also worth singling out is “Black is My Favorite Color,” a ruefully comic account of a unilateral campaign to promote racial harmony which consistently misfires. But the whole collection is an original and wonderful as The Magic Barrel.
Burt Blechman, who launched his first offensive against the American Way in How Much?, returns to the attack with a slashing satire, set in a boys’ summer camp but patently aimed at a much wider target. As the fearsome kommandant tells his assembled horde: “Fellow-tribesmen, America and Omongo are one and the same!” A chilling thought if true, since with very few exceptions the fellow-tribesmen are ferocious, dirty-minded, guzzling little brutes, while the handful of tribes-women who make an appearance are so many bitches in heat. The chaplain’s prayers are drowned by laughter and blaring military music; a decent man like the instructor who turns his pottery workshop into a lonely outpost of civilization is derided and finally beaten up by the other counselors. The drums pound out the fascistic exhortation: all the grinds and bookworms and mollycoddled mother’s boys must be built up into real sluggers, red-blooded champs. And it works, too. A good-natured boy like Randy Levine is sucked into the Omongo system and gradually learns to live by its rules; what finishes him off is discovering how low his father has crawled in order to fix the scholarship which is paying for his stay at the camp. After that he plunges body and soul into the increasingly bloody and hysterical war-game which brings the novel to a violent close.
The War of Camp Omongo punches its points home with furious, machine-like energy. It is ingenious, funny, and often horrible: the account of a teen-age cinema audience going into raptures over the death-agony of a Japanese soldier is not something I’ll forget quickly, though I’d quite like to. The dialogue, too, is exquisitely awful. Yet I don’t think Mr. Blechman manages to bring off the effect of mounting terror at which he seems to have been aiming. His technique is too close to that of a comic strip: his characters are maimed and mauled and squashed flat, but we know that they’ll be ready to go through their paces all over again when the next installment comes round. On the other hand, the author also has a good cartoonist’s virtues: skill in applying bold, spare strokes and brilliant coloring, a taste for visual puns and miniature toyshop effects. Don’t be put off by the unwarranted opening pages, incidentally, with their dunghill view of history. When it comes to the excremental vision, young man Luther and old man Swift had nothing on Mr. Blechman.
Mr. Simckes is also much concerned with bowels and bladder. But he is far more genial. He accepts as human necessities, albeit absurd ones, what Mr. Blechman recoils from as disgusting animal functions. And where Blechman’s scorn reduces his characters to marionettes, the Shimanskys and their neighbors in Seven Days of Mourning are inflated like great carnival monsters.
The Shimanskys are a family worthy of Samuel Beckett in their squalor and decrepitude. Pa is a bleary-eyed newspaper-seller, short-changed by all his customers and bullied relentlessly by Ma, who potters round the house in his farina-stained underwear. He is surrounded by dwarves, cripples, and half-wits: his son Barish sits in a wheelchair passing sarcastic comments, his son-in-law is stone-deaf and near-mute, his only grandchild is a sexually under-privileged tumtum. Bugs and beetles scuttle through the apartment (and through the author’s imagery); the bedrooms are stuffy, the plumbing primitive. Downstairs lives Zadie, who since the age of eighty-five has insisted on being left alone to look after himself, “sitting in the dark and draining his wens.” And now Bracha, the family’s idiot daughter, has just jumped out of a window and killed herself. But the household squabbles are worse than ever: Ma has forbidden the family to mourn for Bracha, while Barish didn’t even manage to get to the funeral, since the leather seat of his ancient wheelchair has finally worn through.
Into this stifling den bursts a messianic little doctor—or rather, he inveigles himself in by sleeping with the downstairs neighbor. (“How else am I to heal you the way I want? Besides, it was my first time with a lady. Such a pleasure I’ve never had.”) He himself is deformed and sick; but he is intent on curing the Shimanskys, teaching them not to bear grudges. Even the obdurate Barish must learn that life is sacred. First things first, however: “Comes mourning, mourn.” Soon the whole family is in tears, and the doctor’s mission very nearly succeeds. But at the last minute he is foiled by Barish’s stubborn ill will. The point of this bizarre and striking novel, which reveals a noteworthy new talent, has already been made, however: “a man is not his blemish.”