Bernard Malamud, The Clumsy Teenage Writer

February 20, 2013 | By

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Before he wrote The Fixer and won the Pulitzer Prize, Bernard Malamud, like so many before him, was a humble high school student who submitted an essay to the Scholastic Art and Writing Award for teenagers. Unlike so many before him, he won.

Published in 1932, the essay — about working in his father’s grocery store — begins hesitantly. You can practically hear the 18-year-old clearing his throat, racking his brain over the best way to begin. But the story is rich and engaging, with a large cast of memorable characters: a “thin, pinched, little girl” miserable with poverty; a “richly dressed” woman who “heaved, rocked, tossed, and creaked” at a botched order; a delinquent kid who makes good for himself when Malamud’s father agrees to drop charges for theft.

Even when his writing veers into over-exuberance, it is full of sharp observations and startling imagery. We see glimpses of the writer Malamud was to become: a master of lyrical language and vernacular, preoccupied with class and social injustice. “I have seen the veneer scraped off life, exposing its plain, dull surface. Somehow, I have become less selfish, and more satisfied with my lot.” This is talent in the raw — a short, must-read for fans of Jewish and American fiction.

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