Published posthumously (Wallant died of an aneurysm in December, 1962, leaving this and another novel in manuscript), THE TENANTS OF MOONBLOOM is a profoundly humorous novel centering its focus on an awakening that exhibits the intensities and accents of a religious conversion to human dignity without ever departing from the secular indignities of the human condition. The acerbities of its plot, the grotesquerie of its characterizations, and the slyness of its humor are the marks of Edward Lewis Wallant’s special talent, one removed from the current fashionable modes of writing. Although he was Jewish and specifically concerned with the treatment of Jewish themes, he is not a “Jewish writer” in the same sense as Bernard Malamud or Philip Roth. Although his work traffics at the very heart of the Existentialist intersection, he cannot be categorized with Heller, Pynchon, or Donleavy as practitioners of “the absurd.” THE TENANTS OF MOONBLOOM falls between both camps, occupying its own lonely place. It is possible, paradoxically, that this achievement of solitude is also the rare achievement of art, and the novel may continue to live after many changes in literary fashions.
As Wallant’s third novel, it represents a distinct technical development over his earlier work. In particular, the major structural crudities that marred THE HUMAN SEASON, in 1960, and THE PAWNBROKER, in 1961, have been eradicated or bypassed. THE TENANTS OF MOONBLOOM folds itself tightly within the arch of Wallant’s sure capacities as a novelist. He discards both the flashback techniques of the earlier novels and the limiting constriction within the reflecting consciousness of an older broken personality.
The focusing figure of this novel is Norman Moonbloom, the agent of the convulsed miseries and frustrations of the four apartment houses which he serves. At the beginning of the novel, he is one of the unliving, moving through life inside an envelope of secure detachment. He is a thirty-three-year-old virgin—both physically and psychologically—unawakened, unhurt, and unjoying. Around him whirls the heterogeneous constellation of grotesques that are the tenants of his houses. They are sordid, posturing, desperate in their pain, and humorous and dignified in the artifices they erect to ward off an acceptance of total squalor. Moonbloom moves through them week by week, collecting the rents, hearing their human cries like “the ear of God,” but without heed, without life.
The action of the novel is basically a chronicling of Moonbloom’s reveille;...
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