In The Tenants, Malamud blends gritty realism, absurd comedy, and fantasy to deal with both social issues and the nature of the creative writing process. The setting of the novel is an abandoned apartment house in New York City in the 1960’s, a time of racial strife affecting both the book’s Jewish and black characters. The point of view is that of Harry Lesser, rendered in third-person-limited narration. All experience, even when the narration appears omniscient, is filtered through Harry’s mind and voice.
The tenement, on East Thirty-first Street, reeks of human excrement, urine, and garbage. Harry and the rats are the only tenants, Harry holding out against a landlord, Levenspiel, who wants to demolish the rent-controlled building and construct a new building with shops at the street level and five floors of apartments above. Levenspiel continues to offer Lesser more and more money to move out, but Lesser will not move until the novel he has been writing for ten years is completed.
Harry Lesser’s isolation is shattered one day when he finds Willie Spearmint, a daytime squatter and a self-taught black writer, who types his novel in a deserted apartment next to Lesser’s. These two men are wary of each other; they form a tenuous friendship but never real trust. While Harry’s novel, The Promised End, is about love (a subject about which Lesser knows little), Willie’s work focuses on a narrative of black experience. Lesser is so obsessed with...
(The entire section is 612 words.)