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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Levin Leaping: Malamud's Masterpiece Redux

  -- By Tom Phillips  

At last!  My candidate for the Great American Novel has gotten the boost it so desperately needs.  This long-shot is "A New Life,” Bernard Malamud’s 1961 epic of a down-and-out New Yorker in the Pacific Northwest.  It's a tale of mutual transformation, unlike anything else he ever wrote, but based on his own true experience in that very time and place.   

Never read it?  Never heard of it?  You're not alone.  “A New Life” is the most ignored work of a hugely popular author.  The New York Public Library system recently held 164 copies of Malamud's best-loved novel “The Assistant,” and exactly one copy of “A New Life.”   But “A New Life” has just gotten a new life, thanks to New American Library, which has published two volumes of Malamud’s work to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, and to literary lioness Cynthia Ozick, who has finally given Malamud’s masterpiece its due. 

In a front-page review for The New York Times Book Review, Ozick compares “A New Life” with no less than Huck Finn as a moral tale, and Gatsby as a saga of American transformation.  She calls it “one of those rare transfiguring American novels that turn wishing into destiny.”  Whatever that means, I think she’s right.   “A New Life” is an immensely complex, immensely entertaining vision – the closest thing to "Ulysses" ever written in America.  It's a hair-raising trip along the disputed borders of east and west, the Fifties and the Sixties, pragmatism and idealism, Judaism and Christianity, repression and revolution.