A few years ago in the New Yorker, Nora Ephron wrote about the pain of losing her rent-controlled apartment at the venerable Apthorp building in an essay more moving, to me, than any of her movies. Freshly divorced with two children, Ephron "was planning to live there forever," but as her neighbors changed and her rent went up, she resigned herself to living somewhere that just wasn't as special. It describes the process by which one becomes attached to a place perfectly, and it's why I still make a point of walking past the Apthorp and peeking into its curved entryway now and then.
The place he lives is also a central preoccupation of Harry Lesser, one of the titulars in Bernard Malamud's 1971 novel THE TENANTS. As with Ephron, keeping his sixth-floor apartment is more than just trying to avoid the hassle of moving: Lesser is running out of money after spending the last ten years writing his third novel, which he needs to be great because his second was a commercial disappointment. The building's owner, Levenspiel, is trying to tear it down and build a new and expensive one, but Levenspiel can't legally evict Lesser so long as he pays his miniscule rent -- he can only come by and offer him buyouts which Lesser inevitably declines. (Incidentally, his building is placed at 31st St. and 3rd Ave. in the charmless Murray Hill -- but there is a six-floor building there on one of the corners.)
Convinced he can't finish the book anywhere, Lesser watches the rest of the building fall into ruin around him and tries to write. Then one day, another writer moves in next door -- an African-American squatter named Willie Spearmint, who parks his typewriter there to get away from his actress girlfriend and work on his semi-autobiographical novel (which at one point is titled BLACK WRITER). Lesser, who rarely leaves the building because of fears as to what Levenspiel will do while he's out, gets drawn into Willie's life to a degree neither man is comfortable with.
I picked up THE TENANTS because of New York magazine's New York Books Canon, which yet again would make an excellent path to follow for a book club. Reading its synopsis though, I can't help thinking the editors got it just a little wrong. This book addresses "the existential precariousness of New York real estate," but I could suggest several just as good, and just might get around to same. The building Lesser is clinging to is just the dilapidated stage on which a larger conflict is set the day Willie asks Lesser to read his book and give him advice on it. The men don't share a class, a race or a lifestyle, but their most fervent clashes spring from the approaches they take to their parallel work. Nothing about that conflict feels dated, or even particularly New Yorkish.
Not surprisingly, I enjoyed this book more than my last Malamud experience with THE NATURAL, although the ending similarly left me a little unsatisfied. The author is probably spinning in his grave knowing that in a 2005 movie adaptation, the tenants were portrayed by the (so not Jewish) Dylan McDermott and Snoop Dogg.
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