Fed up with poverty, Yakov Bok decides to leave the shtetl and travel to Kiev in search of work. He attempts to leave behind an ethnic identity that has meant only hardship and suffering. For a while, he manages to pass for a Gentile and to hold a decent job. Unfortunately, however, a child is found horribly murdered, and Bok, exposed as a Jew, is accused of having drained its blood to make matzos.
Bok is imprisoned under terrible conditions; the authorities try to force a confession to spare them the embarrassment of a trial that will make Russian jurisprudence a world laughingstock. Initially no hero, Bok discovers the iron in his soul and refuses to confess--even when offered a pardon.
Bok’s is a spiritual journey towards a recognition of responsibility to his fellow Jews. He realizes that no one--least of all a Jew--can opt out of history. He comes to see his prison cell, like the shtetl before it, as a microcosm of the much larger prison that is Russia under the Czar, and by the end of the novel he has become what he thought he could never be: a political man, capable of revolutionary violence.
The Fixer, then, is about a turning point in history. Malamud has constructed a parable about the birth of political consciousness in the early twentieth century. The fantasized act of political violence at the end of the novel, like the bombing of the carriage that is conveying Bok to his long-awaited trial, is a portent of the terrorism that would soon start World War I and end the reign of the Romanovs.
Ducharme, Robert. Art and Idea in the Novels of Bernard Malamud: Toward the Fixer. The Hague: Mouton, 1974. Argues that the theme of the tension between suffering and responsibility runs through all Malamud’s work and provides a key to The Fixer.
Field, Leslie A., and Joyce W. Field, eds. Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975. Excellent choice of essays, prefaced by a revealing interview with Malamud.
Hershinow, Sheldon J. Bernard Malamud. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. Good general study of Malamud’s work, identifying his main themes.
Salzberg, Joel. Bernard Malamud. A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985. A comprehensive listing of books, articles, and reviews of Malamud’s writings, with a brief summary of the content of each item.