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Bernard Malamud was born in New York City in 1914 to a family that exchanged Yiddish for English, and he always regretted the loss. Older than Bellow and, in Roth terms, closer in temperament to Henry than Philip, he spent his life straining to regain both the ancestral language and an absent God with all the discipline of an outer-borough grocer. Malamud’s father was just that: Max, formerly Mendel, who quit a shtetl in the Russian Pale for Flatbush, Brooklyn, and a claustral apartment above a struggling store whose accounts he kept in pencil on spare bags. Malamud, never letting anything go to waste, assumed his father’s habit, and drafted all his dozen books in pen on unlined paper. He also apportioned that scribbling, along with his predilection for wounding revision, to Morris Bober, the hero of his novel The Assistant, who quit a shtetl in the Russian Pale for Flatbush, Brooklyn, and a claustral apartment above a struggling store.

A young girl enters with an order from her mother: a pound of butter, a loaf of rye, and a small bottle of cider vinegar.

[Morris] knew the mother. “No more trust.”

The girl burst into tears.

Morris gave her a quarter-pound of butter, the bread and vinegar. He found a penciled spot on the worn counter, near the cash register, and wrote a sum under “Drunk Woman.” The total now came to $2.03, which he never hoped to see. But Ida would nag if she noticed a new figure, so he reduced the amount to $1.61. His peace — the little he lived with — was worth forty-two cents.

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