Appraisal — January 24, 2014, 8:00 am

The Burnt, the Abandoned, and the Died-on

Bernard Malamud’s three unfinished novels

“Third Avenue El,” by Barbara Morgan. Courtesy The Barbara Morgan Archive and Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York City.

“Third Avenue El,” by Barbara Morgan. Courtesy The Barbara Morgan Archive and Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York City.

In the February issue of Harper’s, I write about Bernard Malamud’s novels and stories of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, now republished and bundled for winter in the black jackets of the Library of America, in advance of what would’ve been the author’s hundredth birthday this spring. The series of two volumes, with a third volume forthcoming, will feature all of Malamud’s most beloved fiction, though not his most famous sentence: “Every man is a Jew, though he may not know it,” which Malamud said to an interviewer in 1966 (and again in 1983, and again and again until his death in 1986).

Speech betrays what our hands might’ve censured: Malamud meant, of course, that every man — and woman — suffers, and that this suffering makes him — or her — a Jew. But if that was all he meant, then his apothegm would just be a wry inversion of what countless writers before him had attempted, especially in Hebrew and Yiddish: namely, to integrate Jews by relating their martyrdoms to Christ’s. A Jew in Nazareth died for everyone’s sins; but a Jewish grocer in Depression-era Brooklyn starved — surrounded by canned goods, Malamud’s father, a grocer, starved — so that his family might eat. But this religious interpretation has its secular side: Malamud’s America was a country of immigrants — foreigners — who had nothing in common with one another except their hope for America and the doubt that was their foreignness; their religious and ethnic and racial and linguistic divisions were, paradoxically, the ties that bound — more intimately than did the public schools and public libraries; more deterministically than enfranchisement. To Malamud, the wandering Jew had settled in America as the representative immigrant, to symbolize — and so de-Christianize — America.

Malamud, the eldest child of immigrants, was a universalizer in fiction, and a world-historical sufferer in life. The crux of his travail was literature, specifically the trinity of books he tried to write, which, like “Every man is a Jew,” is not, and cannot be, collected in the LOA compendia. The fates of those books, like the themes of those books, are appropriately Biblical: The Light Sleeper he burnt; The Man Nobody Could Lift, he abandoned; and The People he ultimately died on.

According to Philip Davis, Malamud’s biographer and the editor of the LOA series, The Light Sleeper was about “a depressed young man seeking to find himself, whilst waiting to be called into the army.” In Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life (Oxford University Press, 2007), Davis writes: “[Malamud’s] notebooks refer to scenes — ‘chapter 1 in the toilet,’ ‘reflections on death of a child,’ ‘the cat and the kittens,’ ‘the slip — Irene,’ ‘potency.’ ” Davis — everyone — has to rely on the notebooks because deep into the winter of 1951–52, after six publishers had rejected the manuscript, Malamud, teaching freshman comp in Corvallis, Oregon, took a match to it.

The scene of that private Bücherverbrennung, if not the kindling itself, was repurposed in the uncharacteristically extenuated opening sentence of “The Girl of My Dreams,” a story from 1953:

After Mitka had burned the manuscript of his heartbroken novel in the blackened bottom of Mrs. Lutz’s rusty trash can in her back yard, although the emotional landlady tried all sorts of bait and schemes to lure him forth, and he could tell as he lay abed, from the new sounds on the floor and her penetrating perfume, that there was an unattached female loose on the premises (wondrous possibility of yore), he resisted all and with a twist of the key had locked himself a prisoner in his room, only venturing out after midnight for crackers and tea and an occasional can of fruit; and this went on for too many weeks to count.

“Wondrous possibility of yore”: that, to Malamud, as to every novelist, was the promise of every next novel. The Man Nobody Could Lift — alternately titled The Broken Snow — was even heavier than The Light Sleeper. Malamud began it in 1952 and would return to it, during stretches of distress, throughout the 1960s and ’70s. The novel — an adumbration of Malamud’s brother Eugene, who, like their mother, was institutionalized for schizophrenia — concerns the onset of that disease in the mind of its antihero, who either kills, or just fantasizes about killing, his alcoholic father.

As Davis tells it: “Horrified by this desire, the man flees home during a snowstorm, and ends up across a bridge in a remote farmhouse almost buried in the snow. There he has to try to keep alive a young woman, fighting a possible miscarriage, as well as her five-year-old stepson sick with pneumonia — the pair of them abandoned by the husband and father on his discovery of the pregnancy.”

According to Malamud himself, the book never came together “because I allowed the point of view to be the man’s. The focus was blurred.”

That blur — that encloudedness — is evident in the novel’s afterlife, as story. The first chapter was published as “A Confession of Murder,” in Malamud’s posthumous Complete Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983).

Farr, after he might or might not have committed parricide, hazards an escape — both from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and a pathological interiority:

He walked as if he were dragging a burden. The burden was the way he felt. The good feeling had gone and this old one was heavier now than anything he remembered. He would not mind the cold so much if he could only get rid of this dismal heaviness. His brain felt like a rock. Still it grew heavier. That was the unaccountable thing. He wondered how heavy it could get. If it got any heavier, he would keel over in the street and nobody’d be able to lift him. They would all give up and leave him lying with his head in the asphalt.

The People was Malamud’s last excruciation: seventeen chapters Malamud left behind in rough draft (just one chapter shy of eighteen, Judaism’s metonym for “life”). In the version edited by Robert Giroux, the only editor Malamud ever had, and published as The People and Uncollected Stories (FSG, 1989), they read as a gloss on Robert Aldrich’s The Frisco Kid, starring Gene Wilder as a luckless Polish rabbi dispatched to a post in the Pacific, and Harrison Ford as the desperado who saves him, and is, predictably, saved by him; and Blazing Saddles, in which Mel Brooks, camping it up as a Sioux warrior in greasepaint and feathers, spares a wagonload of free black homesteaders in Yiddish: “Has du gezeyn in deyne leben? They’re darker than us!”

Malamud’s Yozip Bloom is a Jew from Zbrish, Russia; a peddler; a carpenter like Christ, and a greenhorn to the bighorn Wild West of 1870, who’s either mistaken for or corralled into being the new marshal of a no-name town. He’s summarily kidnapped by Indians — “The People” — who, recognizing their captive for a fellow-traveling socialist and comi-tragedian, duly appoint him Chief Jozip and dispatch him to petition the federal government, which is seeking to displace the tribe from its lands:

“If you will podden me,” Yozip said [in Washington DC, to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs], “the chief and also my brothers do not like to change our reservation. He likes, and also the tribe likes, our valley, which they wish to stay there. The chief told me to say that our people don’t attack white people. He told me to say, with respect, if you will kindly let us live where our ancestors lived, and do not force us to go to another reservation, for this we will be thankful to you and also to the Great Spirit.”

Yozip had memorized the speech.

“When you refer to the ‘ancestors,’ ” said the Commissioner, “do you refer to American Indians or to Hebrews?”

Yozip considered the question slowly. “I mean any kind ancestors that they lived before us and believed in the Great Spirit Chief in the sky.”

Despite Chief Jozip doing his best, and his best shtick, to protect his adopted nation, The People are massacred (by an army of Civil War vets, led by a German colonel) and forcibly deported in a final scene — the final sentences Malamud ever wrote — oversmoked, overcrammed, with the trauma of another holocaust:

The next day the Indian warriors, the People, were rounded up and given places on freight cars going to a reservation in Missouri that they had all heard of as a miserable place, although the good general had told them he would help to get them settled in a Northwest reservation they had once thought of asking the Great White Father in Washington to give them. Last Days said that he thought he would not live to see it happen. “We are being sent to a place of death and my thought it that I will die there. This is my only thought.”

The moaning of the Indians began as the freight cars were moving along the tracks.

As for Chief Jozip, his future remains undecided. In one jotting, Malamud has him taken away with his tribe. In another, he turns up, inexplicably, in Chicago, where he joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, as a freak, a White Indian — a savage in complexion and dress, but still a mensch at heart. He’s earning just enough to pay for night school, where — like a character out of Bellow or Roth — he’ll study to become a lawyer, and make his people(s) proud, if they survive.

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Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

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When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


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