Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806

The Fixer has always been considered Malamud's best work by literary critics. Specific arguments, however, have arisen regarding its strong ethnic cultural heritage and the disturbing imagery it presents. In 1965, the year before The Fixer was published, Sidney Richman wrote a book-length survey of Malamud's fiction up to that point, in which he examined the author's popularity and growing reputation. Richman experienced the uneasiness that critics often encounter when discussing works by authors with distinct social or religious backgrounds. On the one hand, Richman wanted to separate the literature from Malamud's heritage and discuss it in its own right, but he also acknowledged that doing that would be impossible, that Jewishness was part of the fabric of the author's works.

During the early 1960s, as Richman pointed out, works by Jewish authors were in vogue, with the best-seller lists being topped by works by Saul Bellow Philip Roth Harvey Swados, Herbert Gold, and others. He applauded the writers, including Malamud, for using Jewishness "to effect an imaginative entry into American literature." If, at the time, many more Jewish writers were making it to the best-seller lists than ever had before, then Richman was right to wonder whether Malamud's popularity was part of an overall trend or fad. However, Richman quickly dismissed this notion in his introduction and went on to offer a serious examination of the themes in each of Malamud's works. As Richman concluded prophetically, "Despite the evidence of his and our senses, he manages to affirm man, to find the vision through which the elusive and enigmatic sense of life's possibilities counters (all reality to the contrary) man's fall from grace."

Critics such as Dorothy Seimen Bilek have pointed out that The Fixer is an exception among Malamud's works. While many of his writings deal with characters that retain unassimilated Jewish values and who deal with the Nazi Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s secondhand—through the window of history—The Fixer is rare in the immediacy of the horrors it recounts. Despite the difference in setting from Malamud's usual contemporary America, Sheldon J. Hershinow explained that there are many thematic issues that remained the same in The Fixer. "Bok is another of Malamud's poor Jews whose life seems to be an unending struggle to make ends meet," he explained. Hershinow went on to take note of a common criticism of the novel—that the characters, except for Yakov, are rather superficial and one dimensional, emphasizing the historical and symbolic over good writing. He agreed with this charge, pointing out as an example the character of Grubeshov, who is so fanatical in his anti-Semitism that he is willing to harm his career to persecute Yakov but at the same time is portrayed as a political opportunist. After recognizing this criticism, Hershinow countered by noting that providing more realistic opponents for Yakov would have made his experience less surreal and, therefore, less terrifying.

Other critics found the situations described in The Fixer to be less than compelling, in part because they are so cruel and difficult to experience, even from the distance of a reader's perspective. Whitney Balliet, writing for The New Yorker found the constant abuses of Yakov to be repetitive: "Human misery does not catalogue well," he observed wryly, to which critic Gerald Hoag responded in the Western Humanities Review, "If someone had long ago convinced Dostoevsky and some others of that principle, perhaps Malamud would not have found himself nose-to-nose with The New Yorker today." Hoag's point was that great writers always used human misery as subject matter, so it gives no reason to dismiss the quality of a work.

In fact, the disgusting details of Yakov's ordeal add to what critic Alan Warren Friedman, in Bernard Malamud and the Critics, referred to as the "Gothic" strain that could be found throughout Malamud's works. The unappealing nature of life is a fundamental part of the Jewish spirit that Malamud writes about, according to Friedman. In his essay "The Hero as Schnook," he summarized the relationship between the two. "The universe, the given, is impossibly antithetical to human dignity and worth, and its impoverished creatures struggle gamely to make a go of things."

Today, Malamud is remembered as much for his short stones as for his novels, possibly because his production of short stories stayed strong throughout his life, while his novel production became less frequent. The Fixer is still considered atypical for him because of its setting, but it is still among his most respected works, possibly because of the awards that it won. Most readers recognize Malamud's name as the author of The Natural, an early novel about baseball that was even more unusual than The Fixer. However, people are more aware of The Natural as it was successfully adapted into a blockbuster Hollywood movie starring Robert Redford and Glenn Close.

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The Fixer

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