Seeking Bernard Malamud on His 100th Birthday

A Young Novelist Explores the Anxieties of Influence

Way Out West: Author Boris Fishman found southeastern Wyoming to be a wonderfully humbling place.
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Way Out West: Author Boris Fishman found southeastern Wyoming to be a wonderfully humbling place.

By Boris Fishman

Published April 25, 2014, issue of May 02, 2014.
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That’s the situation, as Vivian Gornick would say. What’s the story? The story is these two books on my reading table, to which I cling for dearer life than the author can know, for he is 25 years dead. From his resting place, with fingers that were pale and bony even in life, he drags me off my ass by my collar.

After New York, southeastern Wyoming is wonderfully humbling: Suddenly, the books that are never farther than the used bookstore down the street require a three-hour round-trip to the Laramie Public Library. I don’t have the heart to deface public property, so in these library books, too, I cannot write. I must be like Lenin scribbling clandestine revolutionary messages in milk in the margins of the innocuous books he received from his visitors.

I must ration, for the month is long, and I have spent my chits on the same man, on the last two books of his I haven’t read. The man is Bernard Malamud and the books are “Dubin’s Lives” and “The Tenants.” Why Malamud? My first literary godfather was Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As a 20-something trying to grow into a man, I grew out of Marquez and into Jim Harrison, the great bawdy bard of the American West. What does it mean that I next fell for a writer whose idea of a hot time was, to paraphrase E.I. Lonoff, the Malamud avatar in Philip Roth’s “The Ghost Writer,” to write a sentence, then turn it around, and then turn it around again?

I am not up to questions of that size. It is all I can do to turn around this sentence. Outside my studio, there is a literal tumbleweed literally rolling past my window, and the first flakes of an indifferent snowfall — you have no idea what it could do if it tried — fall on the bare branches of the surrounding spruces.

It is eternal winter, also, in “Dubin’s Lives,” the story of a biographer failing to finish his study of D.H. Lawrence, failing to recover the language he has lost with his wife Kitty, failing to keep his hands off the young Fanny, who fills him with the life force he can’t quite feel guilty for wanting to feel. Even summer is winter: “August was a masked month: it looked like summer and conspired with fall; like February it would attempt to hide what it was about.”


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