(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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...

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Abramson, Edward A. Bernard Malamud Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1993. Provides an evaluation of Malamud’s literary vision in relation to the entire body of his work, both novels and short stories. A chapter is devoted to The Tenants.

Allen, John Alexander. “The Promised End: Bernard Malamud’s The Tenants.” In Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Leslie A Field and Joyce W. Field. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975. A short but clear analysis of the novel. The collected essays are useful for a broader view of Malamud’s work.

Astro, Richard, and Jackson J. Benson, eds. The Fiction of Bernard Malamud. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1977. A collection of key essays presented by scholars at a conference featuring Malamud’s work.

Helterman, Jeffrey. Understanding Bernard Malamud. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985. Focuses on Malamud’s characters in terms of individual morality.

Hershinow, Sheldon J. Bernard Malamud. New York: Ungar, 1980. Useful overview and analysis of literary works treating the writer as moral activist.

Salzberg, Joel. Critical Essays on Bernard Malamud. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. Useful collection of essays with a foreword by Salzberg.