Thursday, February 11, 2016

Pulitzer Project: The Fixer

Bernard Malamud's The Fixer is Valium in a paper disguise. I swear I couldn't read more than 10 pages at a time before finding myself snoring. It's been a great -- it did such a good job of knocking me out that I actually slept through the night most nights as I slogged my way through it. I even got in a couple of naps this week when I picked up the book in the middle of the day and conked out pretty quickly.

I'm not sure why the book had that effect. It's reasonably well-written and the setting is sufficiently exotic -- Kiev at the beginning of the 20th century -- that it should have held my interest better than it did. Maybe it was a little too philosophical and/or contemplative. The protagonist, the "fixer" of the title, spends most of his time thinking and worrying. Of course, given that for most of the book he's sitting in a Russian prison, he really doesn't have much else to do.

The "fixer" is a Russian (Ukrainian?) Jew who had worked as a handyman in his home village. When the book begins, he's in the process of getting ready to move to Kiev. His wife has left him for another man, he's living in abject poverty, and he thinks that if he goes to Kiev he'll have a better shot at earning enough money to immigrate to America. He knows he's taking a chance -- he doesn't have the internal passport needed that would allow him to find work in Kiev -- but he figures anything would be better than his current situation.

When he does arrive in the city, at first it seems like his luck has changed. He helps a drunk man who's fallen in the street, and that leads to the offer of a handyman job: painting and wallpapering a rental apartment the man owns. He does a good job and is offered a permanent job at a brick factory. He's managing to pass as Russian, more or less, and is able to live and work outside the Jewish quarter. He still doesn't have the internal identification documents he needs, but his lack of them hasn't been a problem.

And then the body of a 12-year-old boy is discovered and suddenly every Jew in Kiev is a suspect in the public's eye. The child had been stabbed multiple times, which plays right into the lurid beliefs common about Jews at the time. Even the newspapers print stories suggesting that the child was ritually murdered to obtain blood with which to make matzohs. To say that Russians (Ukrainians?) (I'm not sure what to call them; Kiev is part of Ukraine now, but at the time period in which the story is set it was part of Russia) were anti-Semitic would be a bit of an understatement. The Russian government and the Russian church had been using Jews as scapegoats for centuries, periodic pogroms were a fact of life. The fixer has vivid memories of emerging from a cellar along with a handful of other children to discover most of their village is smoldering ruins and their parents are dead. He had been managing to pass as a non-Jew, but he realizes his luck isn't going to hold much longer.

It doesn't, of course, and off he goes to prison -- and that's where he is for most of the book. The good news is that by being arrested, he avoids being ripped to shreds by a howling mob. The bad news is he's in a Russian prison. He's questioned, he's physically abused ("enhanced interrogation"), he learns there's evidence against him, he's told there's evidence to exonerate him. . . and time passes.

In short, this was not a particularly lively book. It's pretty clear the poor sap of a fixer is screwed as soon as the Russian police pick him up. Once he goes into the prison, he's not going to come out again. He might be innocent, but he's also Jewish so he's just screwed. The only question is for just how many pages the author is going to make the fixer suffer. Answer? Too many.

So would I recommend this book to other readers? Once again, it's a maybe. If a person likes Russian novels, i.e., if you thought Crime and Punishment was light reading, you might like this book even if it is a little thin. It's under 300 pages, which makes categorizing it as a Russian novel a little iffy. Still, Malamud is good with words; I have no complaints about the writing style other than it put me to sleep rather quickly. It is, however, definitely not light reading. Of course, if it had been light reading, it wouldn't have knocked me out. On the overall scale, the usual 1-10, The Fixer is another one that falls in the middle of the scale. Better than average, but more toward the middle than the high end.

Next up on the list? The Confessions of Nat Turner, which I read when it was first published back in the 1960s. I'm tempted to re-read it, though, as there's supposed to be a movie based on the 1831 slave rebellion Turner led coming out sometime this year. If the L'Anse library has it, maybe I will. If not, I'll move along to the 1969 winner, House Made of Dawn.


  1. think I'd rather someone stuck me in the eye with a #2 pencil.

  2. I may give this a try.
    the Ol'Buzzard


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