A New Life continues Malamud’s treatment, begun in The Natural and refined in The Assistant, of the search for self-definition. This most picaresque of his works follows the struggles of S. Levin, a young professor from New York who hopes to redeem what he perceives as a failed life through relocation to a technical college in the Northwest. Set in the 1950’s, the novel substitutes the mythic placelessness of Malamud’s earlier novels with a Stendhalian realism replete with topical allusions to the Cold War, McCarthyism, and liberalism versus loyalty oaths.
The novel is actually two books in one. On one level, A New Life functions as a satire on academic life. Amid a world of drab parties, hateful faculty meetings, and dull classes, Malamud introduces a cast of mentally crippled faculty members whose only goal seems to be to hang onto their jobs no matter what sacrifices of intellectual or moral principle must be made. The students are no better; they find little interest in things intellectual and see no ethical problem with cheating to pass their classes. On the second, and more important, level, Malamud deals with his ever-present theme of the quest. The characters and incidents that Levin encounters at Cascadia College are the obstacles in his mythic journey to self-discovery. As in all Malamud’s novels, the hero must ultimately make a choice that will determine his destiny. In A New Life this choice involves, as always, a definition of freedom. To complete his quest, Levin must come to terms with the suffering involved in gaining true freedom.
Malamud’s satirical pen is sharp, with barbs directed both at the academic establishment and at his hero’s excessive idealism. From Levin’s arrival in Eastchester, the home of Cascadia College, it is apparent that this former drunkard and professed liberal is out of his element in the stifling atmosphere of this land-grant institution devoted to giving its students a practical education. He is told flatly that the liberal arts (which he believes “feed our hearts”) have no place in the school’s conservative English department, devoted to drilling students with the anachronistic chairman’s text, The Elements of Grammar.
Against this backdrop Levin encounters a series of disillusionments as he attempts to shape a new life filled with success in his academic career and a oneness with the beauties of the natural world. Be it teaching, departmental...
(The entire section is 1024 words.)