A Summer’s Reading by Bernard Malamud, 1956
The magic trick:
Perfectly summarizing the feeling of a self-loathing depression cycle
You know when you put off until tomorrow what you need to do today and you kind of hate yourself for it? Yeah. So does Bernard Malamud. This story is a spot-on reflection of that all-too-familiar depression cycle.
We have a protagonist who hates himself for one bad decision, so he envisions himself as being someone the opposite of that bad-decision maker, but out of insecurity he brags about it a little too much and finds that his family and community now see him as just this impressive person he wants to be. He hates himself a little bit more. But – and this is really the most perfect of details in the story – even as he hates himself for creating this lie, he also derives pleasure and pride from being viewed this way by the people around him. Of course, feeling that pleasure only adds to his self loathing though in the end. And it goes on and on.
There is a lot here specific to the immigrant experience of the mid-20th century, particularly about the Jewish identity. These are things that don’t really apply to me. Makes no difference, though. The depression the protagonist struggles with in this story is universal. And that’s quite a trick on Malamud’s part.
As the summer went on George felt in a good mood about things. He cleaned the house every day, as a favor to Sophie, and he enjoyed the ball games more. Sophie gave him a buck a week allowance, and though it still wasn’t enough and he had to use it carefully, it was a helluva lot better than just having two bits now and then. What he bought with the money – cigarettes mostly an occasional beer or movie ticket – he got a big kick out of. Life wasn’t so bad if you knew how to appreciate it. Occasionally he bought a paperback book from the new-stand, but he never got around to reading it, though he was glad to have a couple of books in his room.