Bernard Malamud The Tenants

ISBN 13: 9780374272906

The Tenants

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9780374272906: The Tenants
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Two aspiring writers inhabiting an abandoned tenement find themselves locked in a deadly racial confrontation

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About the Author:

Bernard Malamud (1914-86) wrote eight novels; he won the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for The Fixer, and the National Book Award for The Magic Barrell. Born in Brooklyn, he taught for many years at Bennington College in Vermont.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Tenants
LESSER CATCHING SIGHT OF HIMSELF in his lonely glass wakes to finish his book. He smelled the living earth in the dead of winter. In the distance mournful blasts of a vessel departing the harbor. Ah, if I could go where it's going. He wrestles to sleep again but can't, unease like a horse dragging him by both bound legs out of bed. I've got to get up to write, otherwise there's no peace in me. In this regard I have no choice. "My God, the years." He flings aside the blanket and standing unsteadily by the loose-legged chair that holds his clothes slowly draws on his cold pants. Today's another day. Lesser dresses unwillingly, disappointing surprise, because he had gone to bed in a fire of desire to write in the morning. His thoughts were sweet, impatient for tomorrow. He goes to sleep in anticipation and wakes resistant, mourning. For what? Whom? What useless dreams intervene? Though he remembers none although his sleep is stuffed with dreams, Lesserreveries one touched with fear: Here's this stranger I meet on the stairs. "Who you looking for, brother?" "Who you callin brother, mother?" Exit intruder. Yesterday's prowler or already today's? Levenspiel in disguise? A thug he's hired to burn or blow up the joint? It's my hyperactive imagination working against the grain. Lesser makes things hard for himself for certain reasons. That's a long tale but right now it means he doesn't know how to end his book. Nor why the ending, this time, is so hard to come by if you've invented every step that leads to it, though some crumble when you look hard at them. Still, it's bound to come, it always has. Maybe it's some kind of eschatological dodge? Like an end is more than I can stand? Each book I write nudges me that much closer to death? As soon as he ends one he begins another. Now that the imagination is imagining Lesser imagines it done, the long labor concluded at last. Relief, calm, mornings in bed for a month. Dawn on the sea, rose lighting the restless waves touching an island waking, breathing the fresh breath of its trees, flowers, bayberry bushes, seashells. Ah, the once more sensuous smells of land surrounded by the womanly sea. Birds rise from the shore, wheel, fly above the ragged, mast-like palms into the lucent sky. Gulls mewling,sudden storms of blackbirds shrilling over the violet water. Ah, this live earth, this sceptered isle on a silver sea, this Thirty-first Street and Third Avenue. This forsaken house. This happy unhappy Lesser having to write.  
 
On this cold winter morning when the rusty radiator knocked like a hearty guest but gave off feeble warmth, yesterday's snow standing seven stiff inches on the white street, through which indigenous soot seeped, Harry Lesser, a serious man, strapped his timepiece on his wrist--time also lived on his back--and ran down six dirty flights of the all-but-abandoned, year 1900, faded bulky brick tenement he lived and wrote in. Thirty-five families had evacuated it in the nine months after demolition notices had been mailed but not Lesser, he hung on. Crossing Third against the light, feeling in the street's slush that he had left his rubbers under the sink, Harry, in wet sneakers, popped into a grocery store for his bread, milk, and half dozen apples. As he trotted home he glanced peripherally left and right, then cagily back to see whether his landlord or one of his legal henchmen was hanging around in somebody's wet doorway or crouched behind a snow-roofed car, laying for Lesser. A wasted thought becausewhat could they do but once more try to persuade, and in this matter he is not persuasible. Levenspiel wants him out of the building so he can demolish it and put up another but Levenspiel he holds by the balls. The building was rent-controlled, and from the District Rent Office--they knew him well--Harry had learned he was a statutory tenant with certain useful rights. The others had accepted the landlord's payoff but Lesser stayed on and would for a time so he could finish his book where it was born. Not sentiment, he lived on habit; it saves time. Letting go of Levenspiel's frozen nuts he raced home in the snow. Home is where my book is.  
 
In front of the decaying brown-painted tenement, once a decent house, Lesser's pleasure dome, he gave it spirit--stood a single dented ash can containing mostly his crap, thousands of torn-up screaming words and rotting apple cores, coffee grinds, and broken eggshells, a literary rubbish can, the garbage of language become the language of garbage. Emptied twice weekly without request; he was grateful. Along the street in front of the house ran a pedestrian pathway through the unshoveled snow. No super for months, gone like a ghost. The heat was automatically controlled,on the sparse side for the lone inhabitant on the top floor, for the last three and a half months Robinson Crusoe up there, the thermostat set in the cellar's bowels by Levenspiel himself. If it pooped out, and it pooped often--the furnace had celebrated its fiftieth birthday--you called the complaint number of Rent and Housing Maintenance, who bedeviled Himself; and in a few hours, if not more, it reluctantly came back on, thanks to the janitor in the pockmarked imitation-Reformation gray job across the street who poked around when Levenspiel begged him on the telephone. Just enough heat to be cold. You saw your inspired breath. Harry had a heater in his study to keep his fingers fluent in the dead of winter, not bad although noisy and costs for electricity. Things could be worse and had been, but he was still a writer writing. Rewriting. That was his forte, he had lots to change--true, too, in his life. Next building on the left had long ago evaporated into a parking lot, its pop art remains, the small-roomed skeletal scars and rabid colors testifying former colorless existence, hieroglyphed on Levenspiel's brick wall; and there was a rumor around that the skinny house on the right, ten thin stories from the 1880's (Mark Twain lived there? ) with a wrought-iron-banistered stoop and abandoned Italian cellar restaurant, was touched for next. Beyond that an old red-brick public school, three stories high, vintage of1903, the curled numerals set like a cameo high on the window-smashed façade, also marked for disappearance. In New York who needs an atom bomb? If you walked away from a place they tore it down.  
 
In the grimy vestibule Harry obsessively paused at the mailboxes, several maimed, hammered in, some torn out; he set down his grocery bag, his right eye twitching in anticipation of a letter from a publisher he couldn't possibly get until he had completed and sent out his long-suffering manuscript. Reverie: "We have read your new novel and consider it a work of unusual merit. We are honored to publish it." Praise for the book, not for holding out. Lesser had held out, thirty-six, unmarried yet, a professional writer. The idea is to stay a writer. At twenty-four and twenty-seven I published my first and second novels, the first good, the next bad, the good a critical success that couldn't outsell its small advance, the bad by good fortune bought by the movies and kept me modestly at work--enough to live on. Not very much is enough if you've got your mind on finishing a book. My deepest desire is to make my third my best. I want to be thought of as a going concern, not a freak who had published a good first novel and shot his wad. He fished an envelope out of the slot of his mailboxwith both pinkies. If he didn't some curious passer-by would. Lesser knew the handwriting, therefore source and contents: Irving Levenspiel, BBA, CCNY, class of '41, an unfortunate man in form and substance. One supplicatory sentence on thin paper: "Lesser, take a minute to consider reality and so please have mercy." With a nervous laugh the writer tore up the letter. Those he kept were from the rare women who appeared in his life, spring flowers gone in summer; and those from his literary agent, a gray-haired gent who almost never wrote any more. What was there to write about? Nine and a half years on one book is long enough to be forgotten. Once in a while a quasi-humorous inquiry, beginning: "Are you there?", the last three years ago. I don't know where's there but here I am writing.  
 
He ran with his milk, bread, fruit, up six flights, chewing a cold apple. The small green automatic elevator, built for four, had expired not long ago. The attorney at the rent office had said the landlord must keep up essential services till Lesser moved out or they would order a reduction of his rent, but since he was screwing Levenspiel by staying on, keeping him from tearing down his building, out of mercy Lesser did not complain. So much for mercy. Anyway, climbingstairs was good exercise for somebody who rarely took any. Kept a slim man in shape. The stairs stank a mixed stench, dirt, the dirtiest, urine, vomit, emptiness. He raced up six shadowy flights, lit where he had replaced dead or dying bulbs, they died like flies; and on his floor, breathing short, pushed open the noisy fire door, into a dim, gray-walled, plaster-patched--holes with slaths showing--old-fashioned broad hallway. There were six flats on the floor, three on each side, deserted except for Lesser's habitat on the left as one came into the hall; like turkey carcasses after a festive Thanksgiving, the knobs and locks even, picked off most of the doors by uninvited guests: bums, wet-pants drunks, faceless junkies--strangers in to escape the cold, the snow, and climbed this high up because the sixth floor lies above the fifth. Poor man's Everest, even the maimed aspire, a zoo of homeless selves. Seeking? Not glory but a bedless bed for the small weak hours; who in the morning smashed in a window or two in payment for the night's unrepose--thereafter the wind and rain roamed the unrented flat until somebody boarded the broken glass --ransacking what they could: light fixtures, loose nails, mirrors, closet doors lifted off hinges or left leaning on one; and pissed and shat on the floor instead of the toilet, where it was available. Even some of the bowls were gone, or where unsnatched, their seats removed; for what purpose--hats? firewood?pop art pieces?--in contempt of man's fate? And in the morning stumbled out, escaped into the street before this one or that was by chance unearthed by Levenspiel, up for a long-nosed snoop or pleading visit to his uncooperative writer-tenant, and threatened severely with arrest for unlawful entry and trespass. They disappeared. A smell remains. On the roof was once an attractive small garden where the writer liked to sit after a day's work, breathing, he hoped, as he watched the soiled sky--the moving clouds, and thought of Wm. Wordsworth. Occasionally a patch of blue escaped from somewhere. Gone garden, all gone, disassembled, kidnapped, stolen --the potted flowering plants, window boxes of pansies and geraniums, wicker chairs, even the white six-inch picket fence a civilized tenant had imaginatively put up for those like him who enjoyed a moment's repose this high up in the country. Mr. Holzheimer, a German-born gentleman, originally from Karlsruhe, among those requested to move in the recent past, his six-room apartment next door to Lesser's three, desecrated now, the bedroom walls defaced, torn by graffiti, bespattered with beer, wine, varnish, nameless stains, blots, a crayon cartoon of A. Hitler wearing two sets of sexual organs, malefemale; in a second bedroom a jungle sprouted--huge mysterious trees, white-trunked rising from thick folds, crowding four walls and into the third bedroom, dense ferny underbrush,grasses sharp as razor blades, giant hairy thistles, dwarf palms with saw-toothed rotting leaves, dry thick-corded vines entangling thorny gigantic cactus exuding pus; eye-blinding orchidaceous flowers--plum, red, gold--eating alive a bewildered goat as a gorilla with hand-held penis erectus, and two interested snakes, look on. Deadly jungle. And he, Herr Holzheimer, so gentle, clean, orderly a man. I hope he comes back to haunt the bastards, for a change clean whammying unclean. Lesser tried to scare off the nightcrawlers on his noor--God knows what masked balls go on below--by playing loud his hi-fi at night; and he left every light burning when he went out of an evening. He felt, when he thought of it, a fear of the booming emptiness of the building where whole families had lived and vanished, and strangers came not to stay, but to not stay, a sad fate for an old house.  
 
A sense of desolation numbed him--something lost in the past--the past?--as he entered his apartment, stoutly protected by two patent locks plus a strong snap-lock enclosing heavy circular bolts. Only when inside his safe-and-sane three rooms Lesser felt himself close off the world and relax. Here is where he forgot all he had to forget to work. He forgot amid bookspacked thick along living room walls of pine shelves he had laboriously built and varnished years ago, mss. of two published novels and one in progress nearing its end, stored in a large carton in the closet; hi-fi equipment, records in stacks and holders on bottom bookcase shelves, other necessary stuff elsewhere in closets, bureau drawers, and medicine chest. His bedroom-study was a large uncluttered room: daybed, narrow dresser, old armchair at the window, floor lamp, short desk plus straight-back chair--all this the evidence and order of life in use. He would not think how much of life he made no attempt to use. That was outside and he was in. Harry, in his small kitchen, refrigerated the milk container and considered a bit of breakfast but gagged at the thought. He had never been one for more than a cup of coffee; had got bread, fruit for later. Really to give himself time to think how the writing might go. The irresistible thing--the thought he wasn't yet at work gave him the shakes--was to get at once to his desk, anchor, gyroscope, magic mt.: it sits there but moves. Long voyage in a small room. There's a longtime book to finish. Coffee he could cook up when he had a pageful of words on paper. You can't eat language but it eases thirst. He entered his three-windowed study, raised the cracked green shades without looking into the streetand arranged himself at his desk. From the top drawer he removed a portion of manuscript. Harry felt a momentary sense of loss, regret at having given his life to writing, followed by a surge of affection for the imaginative self as he read yesterday's page and a half and found it solid, sound, going well. The book redeemed him. Another two or three months ought to finish it. Then a quick last rewrite of the enterprise--call it third-and-a-quarter draft--in about three months, possibly four, and he'd have it made, novel accomplished. Triumph after just ten years. The weight of a decade lay on his head but neither cracked nor crushed--the poor head. Harry felt an impulse to inspect his face in the bathroom mirror, tired gray eyes, often bloodshot, utilitarian lips, wry, thinning, he thought, as the years went by, interested nose, observer too; but successfully resisted. A face is a face: it changes as it faces. The words he writes on paper change it. He was no longer the young man, twenty-seven, who had started this book, nor had any desire to be. Time past is time earned unless the book was badly conceived, constructed, an unknown lemon; then it's dead time. Perish the thought. Lesser, as he wrote, was sometimes a thundering locomotive, all cars attached except caboose, cracking along the clicking tracks into a country whose topography he suspected but did not know till he got there. Lesser explorer. Lesser and ...

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