Norman Moonbloom, a thirty-three-year-old Jew who manages four small, deteriorating tenement buildings owned by his brother. Norman feels like a failure. A kindly, introverted, studious type, he is not cut out to be a businessman but was never comfortable as a student. During fourteen years at the University of Wisconsin, McGill University, the University of Mexico, and Bowdoin College, he tried accounting, art, literature, dentistry, rabbinical studies, and podiatry before becoming his brother’s overworked, underpaid agent. Every week, Norman goes around collecting the rents in cash. He and his brother are violating rent control laws by overcharging for scarce accommodations, and they give receipts for less than the tenants pay. Because Norman is exploiting the tenants, he does not want to get friendly with them. Whenever he shows kindness or sympathy, someone takes it for weakness and begins making demands. Norman knows the buildings are falling apart, but his brother allows him only enough to pay for minimal maintenance. The tenants have no respect for Norman; some insult or ridicule him. In spite of himself, he becomes involved with the lives of many tenants. In his eyes, they begin to represent all of suffering humanity. He sees old age, disease, alcoholism, thwarted ambition, grief over the loss of a child, unemployment, marital strife, physical and psychological abuse, and the debilitating fears that haunt most people who live on the edge of poverty. Some were prisoners in World War II Nazi concentration camps and have identification numbers tattooed on their arms. Eventually, Norman experiences a physical and mental breakdown from feeling torn between the conflicting demands of his tenants and those of his greedy brother. When Norman recovers, he is a different person. With the grudging assistance of Gaylord, the...
(The entire section is 775 words.)