The People and Uncollected Stories
Asked by a fastidious, middle-aged author of two obscure books why he wants to be a writer, Gary Simson, an aspiring young litterateur, replies: “To convey my experience so that I become part of my readers’ experience, so, as you might say, neither of us is alone.” Eli Fogel, the middle-aged writer, writes because it 5 in me to write. Because I can’t not write.” At work on his third novel, Fogel has had “visions of himself dying before the book was completed. It was a terrible thought.”
It is a terrible reality that Bernard Malamud, who conveyed his experience so deftly and generously that neither he nor millions of readers were entirely alone, died before completing what would have been his ninth published novel. Fogel, whose artistic credo seems very like Malamud’s own, is a character in “The Exorcism,” a story that first surfaced in Harper’s in 1968 and only now appears between hard covers for the first time—along with fourteen other uncollected or unpublished stories, the first section of an abandoned novella, and Malamud’s final, though unfinished, novel: The People. Edited and prefaced by Robert Giroux, Malamud’s longtime publisher and friend, The People and Uncollected Stories does not embarrass the memory of the master fabulist, who died in 1986, one month before his seventy- second birthday.
The People is the story of Yozip Bloom, a hapless Jewish peddler from Zbrish, Russia, who finds himself in the American West in 1870. Wandering into a violent town in Idaho, Yozip is willy-nilly appointed marshal after inadvertently defeating the town bully. Shortly thereafter, he is kidnapped by a tribe of Indians who call themselves the People and, after extensive initiation, is forced to become one of them. The metamorphosis from one marginal ethnicity to another, however, is not so extreme. The name that the tribe attributes to its Great Spirit, Quodish, sounds suspiciously like the Hebrew term for holy, and, when the chief informs Yozip that “Peace is the word of Quodish,” readers can easily translate it as shalom.
Peace, however, is denied the tribe by a government in Washington intent on fulfilling its Manifest Destiny of conquering the continent. Yozip, renamed Jozip, a vegetarian socialist whose English is as heavily accented as that of his new comrades, is dispatched as a frontier Aaron to plead with the genocidal white authorities to let his People go. Eventually, he becomes chief of the embattled tribe and must struggle not only with external enemies but also with his duty toward One Blossom, who falls in love with him though betrothed to Indian Head. Is he worthy of leading his scattered remnant, the People, to promised freedom across the border in Canada? A Jewish pacifist Indian confronting skeptical tribesmen as well as the bellicose and bigoted cavalry, Jozip is yet another incarnation of the Malamud schlemiel, the innocent and pathetic sufferer who learns responsibility and earns redemption through love. The final lines of narrative that Malamud lived to complete resonate with the memory of Indian and Jewish atrocity; Jozip’s surviving warriors are rounded up by the cavalry and boxed into freight cars bound for Missouri. “We are being sent to a place of death and my thought is that I will die there,” says a brave named Last Days.
The last days of the People, though, are not necessarily as bleak as the last lines of The People might have the reader believe. Five additional chapters can be imagined from the author’s notes, which Giroux transcribed and appended, and they suggest a future in which Jozip becomes a lawyer and travels about, pleading for justice. A statement by Malamud’s son Paul, which Giroux quotes in his introduction, refuses to find despair in his father’s final work. “Malamud’s theme is that words and thoughts can conquer chaos, knowledge can conquer ignorance, ethics and law can conquer barbarism.” The conquest of chaos through words and thoughts is not merely a theme; it is also one of Bernard Malamud’s achievements.
According to Giroux, Malamud usually went through three drafts of every novel. Nevertheless, though he only managed to complete sixteen of the projected twenty-one chapters of its first draft, The...
(The entire section is 1763 words.)