The Tenants of Moonbloom

by Edward Lewis Wallant

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First published: 1963

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Humorous psychological realism

Time of work: Early 1960's

Locale: New York City

Principal Characters:

Norman Moonbloom, a real-estate agent for four apartment houses

Irwin Moonbloom, his brother and the owner of the buildings

Gaylord Knight, the janitor

Bodien, an unlicensed plumber

Eva, ,

Minna, and

Lester Bailey, two doting aunts and a nephew

Arnold, and

Betty Jacoby, an aged couple

Marvin Schoenbrun, a fastidious homosexual

Stanley Katz, and

Sidone, bohemian jazz musicians

Sherman, and

Carol Hauser, a couple approaching middle age

Aaron, and

Sarah Lublin, Jewish refugees

Basellecci, an Italian teacher

Jerry Wung, a Chinese beatnik

Beeler, an elderly widower

Sheryl, his daughter

Kram, a hunchback and a photograph retoucher

Wade Johnson, a schoolteacher

Leni Cass, a divorcee

J. T., and

Milly Leopold, a retired carpenter and his wife

Ilse Moeller, a German emigrant

Karloff, a hundred-year-old Russian immigrant

Sugarman, a philosophical candy-butcher

Joe Paxton, a black homosexual writer

Del Rio, a boxer

Louie, a bachelor

Jim, and

Jane Sprague, a young expectant couple


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...

(This entire section contains 1221 words.)

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is basically a chronicling of Moonbloom's reveille; a crude violent violation of his detachment which forces him to bear witness, to become alive himself. Like the ear of God, he is privy to all the petty complaints and profound disclosures of his tenants, and he suddenly finds himself listening. The envelope has been burst; he is no longer asleep, he is ravished by the shock of existence. "Otherness" crushes him into the private being of selfhood, and he discovers that being is unbearable unless it is put to some work. Perhaps, he explains to himself, he is attempting to find a name for what is happening, as he undertakes the gargantuan renovation program of painting, rewiring, repairing, cleaning, and ordering the four buildings in his charge. Nor does he fool himself as to the efficacy or motives of his actions. The child of one couple accidentally strangles to death, one tenant attempts suicide, another dies. Moonbloom himself is successfully seduced by one of the tenants for a reduction in the rent. All of his paint and carpentry will not alter a deformed physique, a remembered betrayal, an impossibly frustrated desire. His struggle for cleanliness and physical decency is only secondarily for the benefit of the tenants; it is primarily a means to work himself on the new calendar of his becoming.

The renovation of both Moonbloom and the houses reaches a climax in the rebuilding and plastering of the toilet wall in Basellecci's room at the end of the novel. Basellecci, dying of incurable cancer, had earlier blamed his disease on the tumorous bathroom wall; however, medical reports pointed to the true cause: he had succumbed to severe depression. Fortified on Strega and vermouth, Moonbloom, the plumber, and the janitor remake the wall in a drunken transcendent choreography of pain and joy, finding in a community of laughter a human acceptance and antidote to the inhuman absurdity of man's fated condition. The grip of the cancer is not denied, nor is the human fraternity assured any but the barest duration, but the wall shines with white plaster and the remembrance of a sacred joy.

However rich in grotesque density and humor THE TENANTS OF MOONBLOOM is (the effects of the remodeling of the houses will be to make their assessed valuation prohibitively higher than Moonbloom's brother can afford), the aims and achievements of the novel go far beyond its restricting grotesqueries. Wallant's Realism is psychological and introspective, not reportorial, and this Realism is at the service of an evocative overarch of symbolism. The search for a name to what is happening is as much a description of Wallant's own building attempts in the making of his novel as it is for Moonbloom laboring in the cumulative filth and disorder of his Augean tenements. The reader is inexorably drawn into Moonbloom's metaphor, himself forced to burst the barrier of detachment and work at his own psychic renewal. On this level, the novel scores a signal success; within the severe aesthetic limitations in which such a statement can be true, Wallant's readers all become tenants of Moonbloom, exposed to the raw slash of "otherness" and led to a perverse joy in their own augmented selfhood.

It has been fashionable for fiction to be ambiguous, problematical, contemptuous of traditional pieties, and irreverent in its embracement of absurdism as the irrational rationale for everything. These may all be legitimate positions from which to write novels, but they also avoid resolving questions posed in a work. Wallant faces directly each of the problems that emerges from his work. The absurd and the problematic figure in his novel as inescapable but not dominating elements. He is able to wrest a form out of the chaos of contemporary experiences which goes beyond a queasy burlesque nihilism, which accents human possibilities rather than niggling determinisms, and which communicates itself in the tones of a sacred laughter that is within the reach of the human voice and spirit.