(by Edward Lewis Wallant)
The tenants of Moonbloom Realty Corp are the poor, the dissolute, the forgotten and the forgetting. Several have blue numbers tattooed on their forearms. Norman Moonbloom, “New York’s most educated rent-collector” now works for his slum landlord brother, Irwin, after decades spent as a feckless student, hopping from discipline to discipline. Norman, small, thin, with a ” gambler-white face”, wears a suit and oversized fedora which make him look like a child dressed as a gangster, and spends his days traipsing between the four Moonbloom tenements, gathering complaints, collecting rent and prioritising the repairs which Irwin will never finance. Irwin rants at Norman on the phone, dishing out demands which Norman hears as “You’ve got to rannana rannana rannana and rannana. Responsibility rannana rannana. I am rannana rannana constantly”. Irwin is never seen by the reader and his imminent arrival ends the novel and will terminate the leases of the miserable Moonbloom tenants.
Norman is “an outsider by vocation”. “He walked lightly and his face showed no awareness of the all the thousands of people around him because he traveled in an eggshell through which came only subdued light and muffled sound”. A tenant tells him,“I get the impression that you’re sleeping”. Another tells him that he is ” unwholesome”, “heedless”, “essentially humourless and unalive”. However, Norman is not totally unaware. “When he washed the pot and the dish, he had an image of himself, thin, dark, idiotically placid, sealed into a hermetic globe whose thinness gave him only the flickering colours of the outside.” He feels an internal “stretching”; “pain seemed imminent”. Like C.S. Lewis in “Shadowlands”, Norman has tried unsuccessfully to eschew real life and its risks for the safety of the cloister. “By lifelong habit, he heard but did not listen, just as he saw but did not look. Like a cautious mouse in an electrified maze, he remembered his few tentative sorties toward things, his few brief adventures into the barest hint of pain. He kept to a small circumference now, having experienced nothing that compensated for the discomfort of sensation.” Like Lewis, Norman is bewildered by the emotional demands on him and, like Lewis, he wakes up to the world of grief and joy and other people.
Wallace’s prose is limpid, concise and expressive. He surprises and confounds. He can be very funny (witness the drunken scene late in the book in which Norman is “reborn” in a welter of filth). He has a deft turn of phrase:-
“Norman said nothing and she heard him”, and
“She led him into the living room, which was papered in ancient brown stripes. There was a glass-shaded lamp, circa 1911. Norman vaguely recalled seeing such lamps used cleverly in pictures of modern rooms. But here, surrounded by massive, clubfooted tables and highboys, it was being played straight, and the reds and blues of the lamp shade were part of the consistent picture from a dusty, old, commonplace album”….. (Note that – it was being played straight.)
The approximately 35 tenants are roundly, compassionately realised, but there are too many for these delicate 245 pages and they are difficult to differentiate. The point is of course that Norman is overwhelmed, his egg is cracked and he starts to see and to hear. Their plight, the dark hallways, unsafe elevator, loose window panes and – most grotesquely – a swollen toilet wall – bring on his pain and his stretching. Norman takes it on his shoulders. Tenants die, attempt suicide and get arrested. Norman faces it all with a dodgy electrician, a moaning handyman and a hired truck. Norman’s burden is his salvation. These people “get into” Norman and he can’t get them out. He starts to wake up, he “grows a face” and a purpose.
This is a marvellous work. Peculiar, lucid and meaningful. Norman Moonbloom will get into your head and you won’t want to get him out.