Friday, July 14, 2017

Edward Lewis Wallant, The Tenants of Moonbloom (1963)

So Edward Lewis Wallant (1926-1962) was a writer. Wow, what a brilliant sentence THAT was. I first encountered him in a Jewish-American literature class (the one where the scanned image a few posts down came from), where I read his best-known novel, The Pawnbroker (1961). It's about a Polish professor who, unlike his family, survives the Holocaust (in a strictly physiological sense); years later, emotionally catatonic, he works as a pawnbroker to support his uncaring sister and her family in New York. The story arc concerns his overcoming his alienation from humanity. I thought it was very powerful.

It was his second published novel, and unfortunately the last published in his lifetime; he died suddenly in 1962, leaving behind two manuscripts that were published posthumously, The Tenants of Moonbloom and The Children at the Gate. Though the proximate cause of his death was a brain aneurysm, it's quite plausible that in a broader sense, he literally wrote himself to death. There's a Library Journal interview that accompanied the publication of his first novel, The Human Season (1960) that includes this from Wallant:

To say that I enjoy writing would be less a mistake of degree than of species. I sweat and ache and writhe in my chair; it is decidedly not in the nature of a relaxing hobby. Why do I write then? I don't know exactly, only that I must do it. It no longer seems to be my free choice. I do not write to entertain myself or others...I write to share my views and feelings of the lives of human beings...However a writer can illuminate the human condition, so must he do it.

Given how intense The Pawnbroker is, it certainly seems possible.

IN ANY EVENT, shortly after I read The Pawnbroker I bought a copy of The Tenants of Moonbloom, but then I never gotten around to reading it. I recently came across my copy, from all these years ago, and decided that what the hell, no time like the present. And I've got to say: GODDAMN this is a terrific novel. It might indeed outshine The Pawnbroker, which I consider high praise.

It's the story of Norman Moonbloom, an overeducated man with no real direction in life (I RESEMBLE THAT REMARK) who is given a job as a rent collector by his slum lord brother at his several properties. He goes around collecting rents and encountering the diverse array of characters living at the properties in question. Wallant is extremely good at drawing these characters: whether it be a tormented gay African American writer, a family grimly trying to hold on to normalcy in spite of the husband's holocaust-survivordom, a pair of aunts who try to treat their young-adult nephew as the son they never had, or an enormous hundred-four-year-old man living in filth and trying to fight off death--it's very vivid stuff. Some of them are more sympathetic than others, but they're all grotesques in the Sherwood Anderson sense--living unbalanced lives of various manias, and using Norman, in their various ways, to try to hold on. Norman himself is directionless and emotionally empty; he tries to keep them at arms' length and maintain a studied irony as he bats off their requests for their shit to get fixed.

Although it's extremely thematically similar to The Pawnbroker--alienated man becomes non-alienated--Moonbloom is, naturally, significantly lighter than its predecessor. And another revelation: Wallant can actually be funny (The Pawnbroker is about as far as you can get from a barrel of laffs). Here's a bit of dialogue I like as Norman is explaining to a tenant why he can't have an air conditioner:

"Well, I'm afraid there would be a problem," he answered. "See, the electrical system is kind of antiquated. Antiquated . . ." Norman shook his head. "What it is really--it puts a severe strain on the wiring when you turn a toaster on."

"What is the voltage?" Marvin asked, looking at the tissue he had been pressing against this cheek.

"The voltage?" Norman echoed.

"Yes, what is it?"

"Uh, well, it's very low," he said in the discreet tone of a doctor preparing the loved ones for an imminent death.

"Not one-ten!"

"Worse," Norman said darkly.

"It can't be."

"It is," he sighed regretfully.

"Well what is it?

"What's worse than one-ten?" Norman asked cagily.


That's what we've got."

"I don't understand. You wouldn't even have lights. How do the lights work?"

"I've asked that question myself."

Anyway, all of this grasping and demanding starts to wear on Norman, 'til he's on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But then--not to spoil anything--he has a breakthrough, and it really is marvelous to behold, inspiring while not being even a tiny bit sentimental. I SO want to quote his final epiphany, but I don't want to spoil it for even one person. It's fucking great, though. The world lost a hell of a talent in Wallant.



Post a Comment

<< Home