The Tenants of Moonbloom
The protagonist is a bland and mild-mannered landlord, but his rise toward goodness is meteoric; this is a stellar and inspiring work of art from a criminally neglected American author.
Edward Lewis Wallant / American / 1963 / 245 pages
For all my apartment and dormitory living over the past several years, I can’t say that my thoughts often turn to my landlord. I know he’s out there — working his magic — but I’ve always seemed to have bigger fish to fry. Like the dude downstairs who blares NPR talk radio as his 7am alarm clock. Or the bizarre aromatic conflagration of Korean and Indian cooking (excellent when segregated, but rather dangerous in summation) that emanates from the stairwell on alternating Tuesdays. Too many toasters in other people’s outlets fry my circuitry. I get roaches even though I manage my modest estate like an obsessive compulsive. When the dude above me insists on his daily imbecilic living room calisthenics, gobs of soot drift down from my light fixtures and into my coffee mug. And we go on.
But the landlord is a distant figure. I mail him my monthly rent cheques, he sends the requisite repairmen, and occasionally I see him lurking around corners in the basement wielding a hammer or maybe a toilet plunger. He is an impersonal deity.
So at first cut it seems a bit odd that Wallant chooses a landlord, or, more specifically, a rent collector who has been hired by the landlord (the distinction, I think, is simply splitting hairs) to play his protagonist. Norman Moonbloom is this man and he’s been charged with making the weekly rounds at a handful of tenement buildings in New York City in an effort to collect cash for his brother who manages a much broader commercial empire. Norman is your run-of-the-mill product of anonymized, urban, high-density living: he finds it difficult to locate the importance of his daily tasks, he grows weary of the lives of other humans crowding so close to his own, and he struggles to recognize any aesthetic satisfaction from the squalor of his surroundings. Every day he knocks on dozens of doors and simply demands the rent payment. People aren’t pleased to see him arrive, don’t feel better when he leaves with their money, and would rather the visits be spaced out at intervals longer than a week.
But the boring beige of Norman is the perfect blank canvas against which Wallant’s other, considerably more dynamic, characters can react. There is the 100-year-old Russian immigrant who eats continually and practically wallows in his own detritus. There are the two jazz musicians whose late night rehearsals keep the apartment complex hopping at all hours (much to the chagrin of the other tenants). We have a homosexual African-American novelist, a drunkard high school poetry teacher, numerous dysfunctional families, a sex-crazed Asian, a handful of survivors of the Holocaust, an Italian language teacher who swills coffee like it was water from the Fountain of Youth, a hunchbacked painter, and, not to be outdone, a candy vendor who hassles potential buyers all day long in an effort to collect a sufficiently fist-sized wad of cash that he might throw away on prostitutes later that evening.
If you think these descriptions resemble caricatures more than characters, then I forgive you briefly for the confusion. Indeed, one of the reasons that The Tenants of Moonbloom is so great is that Wallant is able to squeeze every last drop of humanity out of these figures. The apartment buildings are practically slums, but behind every closed door is a bustling cacophony of dialogue, activity, and, well, life!
The structure of the narrative is straightforward. We follow Norman up and down the stairs as he goes door-to-door soliciting the rents his older brother demands. We generally see him interact with every character (perhaps two-dozen in all) before we get to return to any one of them. Most tenants have long (justifiable!) lists of complaints about the quality of their apartment and they engage in a number of beseeching, wheedling, or threatening tactics to elicit some kind of action on Norman’s part. To prevaricate is his default position and the unaddressed demands pile up high. At the end of each day, he returns to his own abode, exhausted in both moral and physical capacities, and contents himself in a loneliness that rings pleasant after a day so thick with other people and their problems.
But he cannot stand it for long. Eventually Norman snaps and the ennui is replaced by energy. He marshals all of his considerable resources and takes the tenants along with him. The back cover of the book boasts the following praise and I concur entirely in its analysis: “the final pages … must be considered as among the most joyfully uplifting, the most ennobling, or any penned by a serious talent.” I’m not interested in giving anything away, but I will say that if you don’t finish reading this novel with your fist pumping in the air to celebrate the victory of the human endeavor over the obstacles of the modern world, you haven’t a heart.
Panegyric aside, The Tenants of Moonbloom is also comprised of stellar descriptive passages, highly entertaining and original dialogue, and many trenchant insights. In fact, when taking this together, it is utterly baffling to me that Wallant is not better known. Tenants was published posthumously and Wallant was only 36 when he died unexpectedly after only a few years of professional writing. In that brief period of time, his pen exploded into four novels (the other three of which I know absolutely nothing about). As with Maria Dermoût’s novel in my last review, it seems that the NYRB classics imprint has made another excellent choice in elevating an obscure novel into its rightful place in American literature. This is a book that will appeal to a broad range of readers and I recommend it highly (especially to fans who’ve previously enjoyed works by J. D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, and, to a lesser extent, Nathaniel West).
Rating: 9 / 10