[(essay date 1989) In the following essay, Solotaroff investigates the characters, themes, and motifs central to Malamud's "folk ghetto" stories, including "Idiots First," "The Cost of Living," and "The Death of Me."]
By the late 1950s Malamud likely felt that the characteristic strategies of the fiction of the folk ghetto would serve more to imprison his imagination than release it, and it was time to move on. On the whole he moved into more realistic modes. Unlike his first two novels, A New Life, which he wrote between 1958 and late 1960 or early 1961, is set in a particular time, and in a particular political climate. When the novel's protagonist, S. Levin, steps off a train on the last Sunday in August 1950, he has to add to his own "backlog of personal insecurity his portion of the fear that presently overwhelmed America. The country was frightened silly of Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers, Communist spies and Congressional committees, flying saucers and fellow travelers, their friends and associates, and those who asked them for a match or the time of day."1 The setting is neither the surreal product of the collision between the contemporary mythology of baseball and past mythologies (as in The Natural) or the folk ghetto of The Assistant. Even if we did not know from Malamud's life or the geographic and academic details that Eastchester, Cascadia, is Corvallis, Oregon, we can recognize the setting easily enough: a mediocre English department of the state agricultural college, in an attractive small town, in beautiful natural surroundings. In short, Malamud tried for the first time to dramatize his abiding moral concerns against the manners and relative affluence of a representative slice of post-World War II America.
The novel completed, Malamud turned again to writing stories. In the first of these, "Idiots First," which was published in Commentary in December 1961, he temporarily retreated from realism and set the tale in a New York that is even more expressionistically abstracted than the stylized New Yorks of the earlier stories of the folk ghetto or of The Assistant. But "Idiots First" proved to be the last fictional work set in a folk New York. Later stories, like "The Jewbird" (1963) and "The Silver Crown" (1972), contain Jews (one of them a talking bird) who do--or seem to do--amazing things in New York, but the setting is very much a recognizable, contemporary New York, with Jewish leading characters who have assimilated into vocations like teaching high school or selling frozen foods.
When Malamud's second collection of stories, Idiots First, came out in 1963, the degree to which he was setting his moral fables in the here and now was somewhat obscured by the fact that he included two stories of suffering Jewish shopkeepers--"The Cost of Living" and "The Death of Me"--that he had published in the early 1950s. But Malamud's tendency to write in a more realistic mode than he employed in the fifties makes itself felt in all of...