I mentioned the other day that I’d read The Pawnbroker by Edward Lewis Wallant, an American writer who died in 1962 at the age of 36. Two of his novels, including The Pawnbroker, were published during his life, and two posthumously. I just finished on of those, The Tenants of Moonbloom, in a new edition from NYRB, introduced by David Eggers. You can read Eggers’ introduction here.
What a marvelous book that so very much deserved a reprinting and, of course, deserves to be read. I’ll say right off that if I were to do some sort of critical essay on this book, something I am not equipped to do, I would pair it with The Moviegoer, which was published a couple of years before. Taken together, they offer a telling description of midcentury spiritual emptiness and questions of identity and existence. Moonbloom is grittier than Percy’s book, but the protagonists are similar: young men who are not sure how to feel and be in this world.
Norman Moonbloom is an agent for four rental properties in Manhatten, properties that are owned by his older brother. Norman’s job is to collect the rent and put off the tenants’ complaints about their plumbing problems and broken stoves. From Eggers’ introduction:
Norman regularly visits the many tenants with the hope of collecting rent. His own world is simple enough – dreamy and impractical – and so he becomes a kind of canvas on to which the tenants paint, with an Expressionist’s rage and compassion, a picture of urban humanity. And though Moonbloom enters the book detached – “He walked lightly and his face showed no awareness of all the thousands of people around him because he travelled in an eggshell through which came only subdued light and muffled sound” – he’s gradually pulled deep into the mess of lives in the buildings that bear his name.
Wallant’s other posthumously published novel, Children at the Gate, concerns the patients at a troubled city hospital, and in that book he argues against their ability, in the face of disease, brutality, and fate, to influence the outcome of their lives. The Tenants of Moonbloom is somewhat more optimistic. Though the tenants represent wildly different backgrounds, they all seem to have shaken free of imposed stereotypes and the accompanying fates that might have trapped them. The tenants inhabit apartments that are similar in dimension and systematic neglect but they create very different worlds within them. Some are tidy and attractive, while others dwell in filth. Common is the litany of complaints, from broken windows to rampant roaches and missing tiles, and it’s Norman who must listen and then, given the paltry amount Irwin allows, make small repairs for those whose concerns are most pressing.
Wallant writes gorgeously, with prose that never overreaches, even as it leans toward the theatrical – particularly in his tenants’ frequent soliloquies. This is one area where Wallant’s work departs from that of his young contemporaries, whose muscular naturalism he otherwise shares. His characters swing wildly between anguish and joy and are unafraid to let everyone know about it, clearly calling for help in many ways simultaneously. Wallant’s prose shifts seamlessly between the spare, the ribald and the relatively epic (Moonbloom is just a rent collector after all). The novel is sad, without being downbeat, and it teems with ambivalence.
By way of a couple of crises – one that affects him personally, and another that tragically impacts one of his tenants, Moonbloom creeps out of his fog. The action he takes is concrete, but a powerful metaphor – they have been pestering him, plaguing him with their problems, problems his own closedness, the limited funds at his disposal, and his brother’s attitude toward the property had prevented him from tackling. He will, he determines, do what he can.
The tenants are a wild bunch, incredibly varied, ranging from a writer clearly modeled on James Baldwin, to Holocaust survivors, elderly couples, doting parents, an ancient Russian, a disabled artist, and an dignified, constantly aggrieved Italian whose particular complaint is the one that Norman resists most strongly but, in the end, the solution of which provides some of the most transcendent material in the book, out of something so simple as remaking a wall. You don’t believe me. Do.
There are times when the language is a bit over the top (I disagree with Eggers here) mostly when Norman expresses his self-understanding. The rest of the time, though, Wallant writes so beautifully and poetically, capturing a bit of the essence of human interaction almost on every page. There are a great many characters, but each has a distinct voice, perfectly-drawn conflicts and losses rattle in each apartment, each unique.
I was struck by how both novels turn, in the end, on a definite sense of grace, on the central. essential place of self-giving in human identity – not sentiment, not glossed-over idealism, but self-giving for the sake of the unpleasant, the weak, the scarred – the likes of all of us. It is the same small recognition Binx Bolling experiences, in a different way. The great temptation of modernity is isolation, sometimes, as in the Pawnbroker, because of our suffering, and other times simply because life in the city and the suburbs and life in a culture constructed for us, but not by us, an isolatin leading us on a ever-more constricted path to a lonely, fundamentally unconnected place.