BY JONATHAN LETHEM
In conversation with a friend, I once tried to account for my particular fascination with Philip Roth’s early novel
. In attempting to characterize the book and how it stood apart in Roth’s oeuvre, I blurted out: “
is Roth’s Richard Yates book.” What I meant, I guess, was that for one book Roth had tried to write a normatively autobiographical novel of postwar American life, outside any conjuration of the mythic or absurd; he tried to paint within the lines. In order to confront the suffocating fullness of American life in the fifties, Roth had run his character up against the possibilities of marriage and children and a conventional career, and by doing so tried to isolate the theme of freedom-versus-responsibility that was so deeply implicit in the life of those times. Richard Yates wrote that book over and over again; Roth and Bernard Malamud, only once.
I don’t mean to suggest any possibility of direct influence. In fact,
(Yates’s debut), and Malamud’s
A New Life
were all published within months of one another in 1961. Rather, I wonder if it might have been some kind of principle—that many writers felt they had to try writing such a novel, that the moment determined the necessity of such books. So, call
A New Life
Malamud’s Yates novel.
Certainly it is his most traditional, and least mythic. Though I don’t mean to point to biography (I honestly don’t know the facts of a life story about which Malamud was famously reticent, and don’t think it important to know them), the book is
autobiographical. The story is archetypal, but for a change Malamud doesn’t emphasize archetype. Samuel Levin, formerly a drunkard, as the first sentence beautifully informs us, takes a teaching job in a rainy western state, not understanding why he’s been chosen from among hundreds of candidates, too grateful to care or look closely enough to discern he’s coming to teach at an agricultural college, not a liberal arts school. Levin’s a definitive Eastern outsider, flinching from past failure and eager to make the new life that migration westward has always promised.
The genre is the Western, but the nearest Malamud can bring himself to the genre is in its refusal. For Levin, a tenderfoot with a tender heart, is also a schlemiel, prone to absurd crises, so ill-suited to his adopted landscape that he’s not yet a driver of cars. Decorous in his own mind, in outward behavior he nearly always commits too much, blurts his thoughts, stays too long, makes Hail Mary passes into an end zone full of players from the opposing team. This pattern proliferates in comic miniatures in the picaresque first half of the book. Then farce mires, and Levin lurches into tragic inextricability in his affair with an English department colleague’s wife. Tragic or comic, Levin’s a reverse Zeno. While he pictures himself a slow beginner advancing on his future by half steps, in truth each time he lifts his foot he takes a step and a half, at least.
A New Life
, seemingly the least Jewish of Malamud’s books, plays at being secular. The word
is only mentioned once,
practically on the last page. When it comes it’s nearly as a sigh of acceptance: yes, of course there’s also this, I am one of the Chosen People, if things weren’t already bad enough. There’s an Irish red herring, too: Joyce is quoted in an epigraph, and the book fools with Joycean streams and puns (Life, Lev, Love) a few times. The elderly grammarian who dies in Levin’s arms mumbling about the mysteries not of the infinite but of the
is a jape worthy of Flann O’Brien.
More intimately, Levin is haunted throughout his year of teaching by a precursor-ghost at the college, the dissident Irishman Leo Duffy. Inheriting Duffy’s office, and his role as faculty agitator, Levin becomes fascinated and intimidated by the strong impression left by Duffy’s flameout (though he’ll far outdo Duffy by the end). And Duffy’s suicide note, with its own abrupt, Beckettian pun, seems to move Levin to an ultimate commitment to his fate. How many characters who fail to appear in the novel in which they are named have such vivid life?
Then there’s Gilley, Levin’s grating, grinding pedant of a rival, with his pathetic compulsion to photograph what he doesn’t understand. And Fabrikant, the dour mysterious scholar on horseback, who with his odd Germanic name may perhaps be another image of the Jew, one assimilated to the dark side of the moon. But Levin refuses all these images of a possible alternate self, or of a defining antagonist, in favor of the affections of his Olive-Oylish girlfriend.
Here is finally why the book refuses to be any kind of Western: because unlike a Western hero, whose primary engagement is with other men, Levin is in his lonely heart a lover of women. Not an incompetent one, either. In the end, A New Life commits itself, with beautiful discomfort, to being a love story, full of private feeling made into the most passionate sort of art. When the schlemiel drives his family out of the frame of Gilley’s camera, and into the future, the book’s title is revealed as absolutely sincere. Malamud’s Yates novel is also his funniest and most embracing, an underrated masterpiece.
S. Levin, formerly a drunkard, after a long and tiring transcontinental journey, got off the train at Marathon, Cascadia, toward evening of the last Sunday in August, 1950. Bearded, fatigued, lonely, Levin set down a valise and suitcase and looked around in a strange land for welcome. The small station area—like dozens he had seen en route—after a moment’s activity, was as good as deserted, and Levin after searching around here and there, in disappointment was considering calling a taxi, when a man and woman in sports clothes appeared at the station. They stared at Levin—the man almost in alarm, the woman more mildly—and he gazed at them. As he grasped his bags and moved towards them they hurried to him. The man, in his forties, tall, energetic, with a rich head of red hair, strode forward with his hand outstretched.
“Sorry I’m late. My name’s Dr. Gilley.”
“S. Levin,” Levin said, removing his black fedora, his teeth visible through his beard. “From the East.”
“Good,” beamed Gilley, his voice hearty. He indicated the tall, flat-chested woman in a white linen dress. “My wife.”
“I’m pleased—” Levin said.
“I’m Pauline Gilley.” She was like a lily on a long stalk.
“Let me help you with your bags,” Gilley said.
“No, thanks, I—”
“No trouble at all.”
He had grabbed both bags and now carried them around to his car, parked in front of the station, his wife and Levin hurrying after him. Unlocking the trunk, where two golf bags lay, one containing a brand new set of clubs, he deposited Levin’s things.
Levin had opened the rear door but Pauline said there was room for all in front. He shyly got in and she sat between them.
“We were delayed at the golf course,” she explained.
“Do you play?” Gilley asked Levin.
They drove a while in silence.
“I hope to learn some day,” Levin said with a broken laugh.
“Good,” said Gilley.
Levin relaxed and enjoyed the ride. They were driving along an almost deserted highway, in a broad farm-filled valley between distant mountain ranges laden with forests, the vast sky piled high with towering masses of golden clouds. The trees softly clustered on the river side of the road were for the most part deciduous; those crawling over the green hills to the south and west were spear-tipped fir.
My God, the West, Levin thought. He imagined the pioneers in covered wagons entering this valley for the first time, and found it a moving thought. Although he had lived little in nature Levin had always loved it, and the sense of having done
the right thing in leaving New York was renewed in him. He shuddered at his good fortune.
“The mountains to the left are the Cascades,” Pauline Gilley was saying. “On the right is the Coastal Range. They’re relatively young mountains, whatever that means. The Pacific lies on the other side of them, about fifty miles.”
“The Pacific Ocean?”
The Gilleys laughed. “We could drive over to the coast some time before Registration Week,” Dr. Gilley said.
He went on amiably, “Seymour shortens to Sy—isn’t that right?”
“My first name’s Gerald and you already know Pauline’s. People aren’t too formal out this way. One of the things you’ll notice about the West is its democracy.”
“And we’re curious about everybody,” Pauline said. “One can’t help be in a small town. Have you any pictures of your family in your wallet? Or perhaps a sweetheart?” She laughed a little.
Levin blushed. “No pictures, no sweetheart.”
He said after a minute, “No wallet.”
They laughed, Pauline merrily, Gilley chuckling.
“Oh, look there!” She pointed toward the eastern mountains.
In the distance, a huge snow-capped peak rising above the rosy clouds reflecting the setting sun, floated over the darkish blue mountain range.
“Extraordinary,” muttered Levin.
“Mt. Chief Joseph,” Pauline said. “I knew you’d like it.”
His heart was still racing from the sight when Pauline said, “We’re almost in town. Would you like us to drive through the campus?”
“Tomorrow,” Gilley said. He pointed under the setting sun.
“That’s Easchester we’re coming to. The college is over there to the southwest. That tall building just over those trees is Chem Engineering. That one is the new Ag building. You can’t see Humanities Hall, where we hang out, but it’s in that direction there. We live about half a mile from the campus, about that way. You’ll be living close in if you like Mrs. Beaty’s house, about three blocks from the office, very convenient.”
Levin murmured his thanks.
They were driving through downtown, and were, before he could get much of an impression, out of it and into a residential section of lovely tree-lined streets and attractive wooden houses. The many old trees and multitudes of green leaves excited Levin pleasantly. In a few minutes they had arrived in front of a two-story frame house, painted an agreeable brown, with a slender white birch on the lawn, its lacy branches moving in the summer breeze. What surprised Levin was the curb-strip planted thick with flowers the whole length of the house, asters, marigolds, chrysanthemums, he guessed; in his valise was a copy of
Trees and Flowers
, a fat volume recently purchased.
“This is our house,” said Pauline, “although Gerald would prefer a ranch type.”
“Someday we’ll build,” said Gerald. “She’d have a lot less housework,” he said to Levin.
Though Levin liked the house, birch tree, and flowers, to enter a house after so long a time traveling slightly depressed him; he hid this as he followed Gilley along the flagstone path and through the door.
Pauline said she would whip up something for supper, nothing elaborate, as soon as the sitter had finished feeding the children in the kitchen.
“Care for a drink after your long journey?” Gilley asked Levin, winking.
Levin thanked him, no.
“Not even a short one?” he measured an inch with long thumb and forefinger.
“No, I really—”
“All right. Mind if I do?”
“How about beer?” Pauline asked. “Or if not that I can open an orange drink, or give you a glass of water?”
“Beer is fine,” Levin said.
“I’d be just as happy to bring you water.”
“I’ll take the beer.”
“There’s a blue towel for you in the bathroom if you wish to wash.”
She returned to the kitchen and Gilley drew the shade at the side window before he mixed martinis. Through the open blinds of the front window Levin admired a small purple-leaved tree in front of the house diagonally to the left across the wide street.
“Plum tree,” Gilley said. “Pink flowers every spring.”
“Beautiful.” Levin, out of the corner of his eye, watched the man watching him.
When Pauline returned with the beer her husband raised his martini glass. “To a successful career for Sy.”
“Cheers,” said Pauline.
“Thank you.” Levin’s hand trembled as he held the glass aloft.
They drank, Levin drinking to himself before he knew he was doing it.
“Do you mind eating early?” Pauline asked. “It makes a longer evening. We’ve had to do that since the children.”
“Please, as you desire.”
He was sitting on the couch enjoying the beer and the room. It was a long room, tastefully furnished and curtained. On the wall hung a black and white print of a hunter shooting at a bird, and a Vermeer reproduction of a young woman. The shelved right wall was filled with books. On the kitchen side, the room was apparently for dining, and an old-fashioned round table stood there with three place settings and four chairs.
“TV?” Gilley asked. “The set’s in my den.”
“Later, Gerald,” Pauline said. “I’m sure Mr. Levin has seen television.”
“I didn’t say he hadn’t, but there won’t be much time later. He’s got to get settled.”
“Don’t have any worries on my account,” Levin said.
“I’ll drive you over to Mrs. Beaty’s right after supper,” Gilley said, pouring another martini. “She’s got a good-sized room with a private entrance by way of the back yard. And there are kitchen privileges if you want them, Sy, damn convenient for eight o’clocks, which I can tell you you will have. She’s a widow—nice woman, former grade-school teacher married to a carpenter; he died almost two years ago, I’d say—came from South Dakota, my native state. Funny thing, I spent my first week in this town, just eighteen years ago, in the same room she’s offering you.”
“You don’t say,” said Levin.
“I’ll be glad to have a look at it.”
“If you don’t like it you can come back here tonight,” Pauline suggested.
Gilley seemed to be considering that but Levin hastily said, “That’s so kind but I won’t trouble you any more. The hotel is fine. You wrote me they have one here, as I remember?”
“Fine,” said Levin.
“Good. Let me freshen your beer.”
“This is fine.”
Pauline finished her drink and went into the kitchen.
“You’re our twenty-first man, most we’ve ever had full-time in the department,” Gilley said to Levin. “Professor Fairchild will meet you tomorrow afternoon at two. He’s a fine gentleman and awfully considerate head of department, I’m sure you’ll like him, Sy. He kept us going at full complement for years under tough budgetary conditions. Probably you’ve heard of his grammar text,
The Elements of Grammar
knows how many editions it’s been through. The department’s been growing again following the drop we took after the peak load of veterans, though we’ve still got plenty of them around. We put on three men last year and we plan another two or three, next. College registration is around forty-two hundred now, but we figure we’ll double that before ten years.”
He smiled happily at Levin and Levin smiled at him. Nice chap, very friendly. He put you at your ease.
“We’ve been hearing from people from every state in the Union. For next year I already have a pile of applications half a foot high.”
“I’m grateful for—”
“You won’t miss New York? This is a small town, Sy, ninety-seven hundred, and there isn’t much doing unless you get outdoors or are interested in football and such. Season tickets for athletic events are modestly priced for faculty.”
“No, I won’t miss it,” Levin said with a sigh.
“Pauline’s been talking for years about visiting New York City.”
“I wouldn’t want to stay too long. I don’t take to cities well, I get jumpy after a while.”
“I know what you mean.”
“You seem pretty glad to leave?”
“I lived there all my life.”
“I should say. Eight million people, that’s seven more than we have in the whole state of Cascadia.”
“Imagine,” muttered Levin.
“We’re growing, though, about three thousand a year.”
Pauline set glasses on the table, then came out of the kitchen, carrying a casserole.
“Tuna fish and mashed potatoes,” she said apologetically. “I hope you like it.”
“Perfect,” Levin said. He was abruptly very hungry. They sat down at the round table, for which he felt a surprising immediate affection. Pauline had forgotten the salad bowl and
went in to get it. When she returned she served the casserole, standing. A child called from the kitchen. Distracted, she missed Levin’s plate and dropped a hot gob of tuna fish and potato into his lap.
He rose with a cry.
“I’m so dreadfully sorry.” She hastily wiped at his pants with a cloth but Levin grabbed it from her and did it himself. The operation left a large wet stain.
“I’d better change,” he said, shaken. “My other suit is in my bag.”
“I’ll get it,” Gilley said, his face flushed. “It’s still in the trunk.”
“Everything will get stone cold,” Pauline said. “Gerald, why don’t you lend Mr. Levin a pair of your slacks? That’ll be quicker.”
“I’d rather get my own,” Levin said.
“Let him do what he wants,” Gilley told his wife.
“There’s no need for him to be uncomfortable till we get his suitcase in. Your gray slacks will go nicely with his jacket. They’re hanging in your closet.”
“Please—” Levin was perspiring.
“Maybe she’s right,” Gilley said. “It’d be quicker.”