‘The Jewbird’ by Bernard Malamud

Malamud, Bernard 1963

The Jewbird by Bernard Malamud, 1963

The magic trick:

Forcing the reader to adapt to a sudden burst of magic realism

This story starts innocently enough. We’ve got a family in New York City, an angry father, a concerned mother. Then without warning we have a talking bird. Yes, a talking bird.

Edie, the mother, demonstrates surprise but only momentarily. Then it’s back to the business of the story. The characters, just like the reader, are expected to accept this surprise element as if it is a perfectly normal part of the backdrop. And the characters do. And so does the reader. It’s remarkable. The story goes on to make a fairly devastating point about self-loathing in the Jewish community, and the fact that the bird talks is only incidental to the theme. And that’s quite a trick on Malamud’s part.

The selection:

“Right on the table,” said Cohen, putting down his beer glass and swatting at the bird. “Son of a bitch.”

“Harry, take care with your language,” Edie said, looking at Maurie, who watched every move.

The bird cawed hoarsely and with a flap of its bedraggled wings—feathers tufted this way and that—rose heavily to the top of the open kitchen door, where it perched staring down.

“Gevalt, a pogrom!”

“It’s a talking bird,” said Edie in astonishment.

“In Jewish,” said Maurie.

“Wise guy,” muttered Cohen. He gnawed on his chop, then put down the bone. “So if you can talk, say what’s your business. What do you want here?”

“If you can’t spare a lamb chop,” said the bird, “I’ll settle for a piece of herring with a crust of bread. You can’t live on your nerve forever.”

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