Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 612
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.
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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 nature of art that he does not experience life. Spearmint is torn between being a black activist and being a writer. Thus, each is an incomplete writer: Spearmint lacks form, and Lesser lacks experience.
As the men continue writing and intellectual sparring, Willie invites Harry to socialize, first at Harry’s apartment and later at the apartment of a black friend, Mary Kettlesmith. Harry becomes acquainted with both Willie’s white Jewish girlfriend, Irene Bell who is an Off-Broadway actress, and Mary. Harry has sexual relations with both of the women during the course of the novel. Harry begins an affair with Irene. After several months of secret liaisons with Irene, Harry finally tells Willie that they are in love and intend to be married. Willie strikes back at Harry by destroying his manuscript. Harry then destroys Willie’s typewriter, each depriving the other of something important to the artist-writer.
Trying to save his novel, Harry makes a desperate attempt to reconstruct his work. He hopes to write a better book than the earlier draft. He is so caught up in the attempt that he ignores Irene more each day. One morning, he finds in the rubbish container a barrelful of crumpled yellow pages, indicating that Willie is back and also trying to write. Harry never actually sees Willie, but each day he reads the discarded crumpled paper so that he can keep track of Willie’s attempts at writing. He then learns that Willie is keeping track of Harry’s progress also. Neither writer is able to perform his art in the way he wants.
Malamud combines reality and fantasy in the final climactic scene of confrontation between the two men, which occurs in a dark hallway of the tenement building. Harry imagines it as a jungle in which they are locked in a final bloody struggle. They use racial epithets to illustrate their hatred; Harry attacks Willie’s skull with an ax, while Willie castrates Harry with a sharp saber, thus reversing the racial stereotypes. The last words of the novel are spoken by Levenspiel, who discovers the two men’s bodies and prays for mercy for them and for himself.