The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud, 1954
The magic trick:
Taking a realistic, urban premise and making the story feel like a fable or fairy tale
Malamud’s premise is simple enough – a young man on the verge of becoming a rabbi enlists the help of an old Jewish matchmaker in order to find a wife. Even the story’s developments appear to be rooted in realism. But by story’s end, it is clear Malamud has created more than an entertaining story or even an interesting take on modern life. He has offered the reader a tale more timeless – a fable, something close to a morality play. The matchmaker character takes on almost supernatural qualities. Characters and characteristics begin to stand in as symbols for other, bigger ideas.
What is most impressive, though, is that even as Malamud clearly is using his story to bring forth more universal questions about faith and morality, he never falls prey to heavy-handedness in his writing. His tone never strikes a preachy note. The symbolism and, especially, the ending are far too ambiguous to force-feed any author agenda.
Does Leo use Stella to run away from God, or does he use her to run to God? Malamud isn’t saying. He has created a realistic, urban fable that doesn’t just provide the chance for reader interpretation, it demands reader interpretation. And that’s quite a trick on Malamud’s part.
“Put me in touch with her, Salzman,” Leo said humbly.
Salzman had stopped chewing, and Leo understood with emotion that it was now arranged.
Leaving the cafeteria, he was, however, afflicted by a tormenting suspicion that Salzman had planned it all to happen this way.