Idiots First by Bernard Malamud, 1961
The magic trick:
Making a social criticism more timeless by attaching it to a short story instead of an essay or work of political commentary
If you are frustrated with the society in which you find yourself, what do you do? Riot in the streets? Write a strongly worded letter to your local newspaper editor? How about some short fiction instead? It’s far more effective.
Mr. Malamud evidently had some things to say about his Jewish community. He could’ve written an essay and I’m sure it would’ve been very well-done, made a lot of people think in 1961. But instead he wrote this story, and here I am, completely and totally divorced from the times, a half century later, considering his point of view, affected by the emotional weight of the ideas he presents. And that’s quite a trick on Malamud’s part.
“Where is open the door there we go in the house,” the sick
man said. “If you will kindly give me thirty-five dollars, God will bless you. What is thirty-five dollars to Mr. Fishbein? Nothing. To me, for my boy, is everything.”
Fishbein drew himself up to his tallest height.
“Private contributions I don’t make—only to institutions. This is my fixed policy.”
Mendel sank to his creaking knees on the rug. “Please, Mr. Fishbein, if not thirty-five, give maybe twenty.” “Levinson!” Fishbein angrily called. The servant with the long sideburns appeared at the top of
the stairs. “Show this party where is the door—unless he wishes to
partake food before leaving the premises.” “For what I got chicken won’t cure it,” Mendel said. “This way if you please,” said Levinson, descending.