The Tenants of Moonbloom, Edward Lewis Wallant, Harcourt, 1963, 245 pp
I don't remember how this novel landed on my 1963 list. I must have read a review somewhere and ordered a copy. That sounds likely because the edition I have is a New York Review of Books Classics reprint. When it came along on my list I picked it up and read it.
At first and for quite a while actually, it was one of those unprepossessing stories about a sad sack guy named Norman Moonbloom who had drifted mostly downward in life. He works as a rent collector for his brother Irwin, a slumlord in late 1950s Manhattan.
Everything is dark and gloomy and falling apart, both the apartments in subdivided brownstones and their inhabitants. You go through a couple days with Norman as he makes his rounds and meet all the tenants. It all felt very much like an early Saul Bellow or Bernard Malumud novel with eccentric, socially maladjusted characters. The maladjusted tenants all complain to the maladjusted Norman about whatever is broken down in their apartments, from stoves to toilets to cracked flooring, stuck windows and buckling walls. Poverty being barely tolerable, exaggerated by high rents and shoddy management. Ho hum.
Suddenly it turns into the story of a young man, Norman, who has never connected much with life or the people around him, but for no known reason bursts into a guy who cares. A guy who defies his penny pinching brother and goes on a crusade to fix everything in those crumbling buildings. A guy who think he can fix those crumbling people or at least bring some light and comfort into their lives.
At that point I had to go on reading, all the while knowing Norman could not fix anyone, probably not even himself, but fascinated and even laughing at the slapstick of Norman's and his handyman Gaylord's do-it-yourself attempts to fix stuff.
Slow start, sudden change, and a tremendous build to the end. I only cared about Norman Moonbloom but it was him learning to care about his tenants that held my attention. In the end the novel was a feat of storytelling in a setting that would normally only induce despair but instead created a sense of hope for humanity.
I took a chance on a book and it paid off.
(The Tenants of Moonbloom is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)