March 18, 2009

Homeless Lit.: The Tenants of Moonbloom

Bite the windy blackness and gasp: "I never was."

Cover of the 2003 re-issue edition of Edward Lewis Wallant's 1963 novel.

The Tenants of Moonbloom is an amazing, almost-forgotten novel from the early Sixties, set in the early Sixties, about a thirty-three-year-old who had left being a perpetual college student to take up his first job, collecting weekly rent from the tenants of his slumlord brother's four buildings.

When Michaelann Bewsee, blogger of Michaelann Land, an excellent homeless-advocacy blog, recommended the book to me, she told me its homeless connection was weak. She wrote of Moonbloom's tenants, "No, they're not homeless, but they live in incredibly dilapidated apartment buildings in a poverty-stricken section of New York. [Yes, righto. An impoverished section of Manhattan. How New York has changed!]

"All of the characters are vivid and alive, but the real story is Moonbloom ... [who] is gradually awakened and transformed."


The tenant characters are impoverished, at the edge of homelessness. Like homeless people in real life — in Homeless World Sacramento, or in Homeless World Anywhere — they each have distinct personalities, ways of being, and realms of genius or insight. Some are astonishingly selfish; others, sainted and selfless. Some have gathered a concrete crust around them, to keep from being hurt; others are fragile. They span the spectrum: They are all of us; we, all of them.

Of overabundant importance to the tenant characters is Norman Moonbloom, who collects the rent [giving each renter a receipt for less than the cash that he receives], and who potentially may be able to improve conditions in the hovel where each tenant lives.

When Norman reports the enormity of the deluge of long-standing problems in the four buildings it only frustrates the detached landlord brother, Irwin, who instructs Norman to take control of things and spend a few hundred dollars here and there to shut the tenants up.

In the early part of the book, we follow as Norman Moonbloom collects rent with great reluctance. He hates doing so, in part because the tenants are chatty, eating up a lot of time, and because they complain — as well they should — and Moonbloom's excuse for never doing anything much to help them is that he is "just the agent," and not a decision maker.

But by the eighth page, the book gives us a first inkling of Moonbloom's transformation into a flesh-and-blood human being: "There had been no horrors in his life – only a slow widening of sensitivity. But he anticipated reaching the threshold of pain one of these days. It was like the fear of death; he could ignore it most of the time, although it was implacably there, to touch him with the very tip of its claw in moments of frustration, to bring dread to him during the 4:00 A.M. bladder call."

[By the way, a quick aside: In the quote above you can see how splendidly Wallant writes. Wallant writes with a flair all his own and is deeply penetrating. His observations seep into everything. While the book can seem to have a narrow topic and straightforward plot, truly it's a philosophical thunderstorm, about The Great All, no less.]

The first chapter ends with these words describing Moonbloom as we see him first going out to collect rent:

He locked the door, went up the steps, and headed for the subway that would take him to the upper West Side of town. He walked lightly and his face showed no awareness of all the thousands of people around him because he traveled in an eggshell through which came only subdued light and muffled sound.

I think that Moonbloom, at this point in the story, is the model of the majority of Sacramento-area homeless-aid workers, people utterly unaffected by the lives of the people they are supposedly there for (even though more than a few are former homeless folk themselves). For us in Sacramento, Moonbloom is just like the mental-health counselors who never step out of their officeplace, the bed-snatchers at the shelters, the dyspeptic crew at Overflow, and the bubbly volunteers who treat homeless people as if they are all slightly-retarded children. And Moonbloom is like absolutely every one of the feeble excuses for human beings who work [using the term "work," loosely] at the welfare office at 28th & Q.

In chapter 4, Norman and a tenant named Wade confront each other. Wade tells Norman, "I feel pain, I'm full of sensation. I've got an idea that you could watch a murder committed and smile your goofy little shit-eating smile. You're like a body under water you know that? Yeah, Moonbloom, that's the image, a god-damned Hebrew body wrapped in water. When you talk — glub, glub, bubble, bubble.

Later, before Norman gets away, Wade adds, "Do not go gently into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at the end of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light ..."

It's a call for Norman to use a crowbar and open up his spectrum of emotions, from those that are curlish and ugly to those that are compassionate and divine.

Of importance, something readers would have been keenly aware of when the novel was published in 1963, but which gets lost reading it now, is that Norman is a Jew in New York a scant 17 years after the end of WWII. Also, in 1963, antisemitism was rampant like it isn't today. Norman is too young to have served during the war, and there's much to suggest he had nothing to do with the military. His brother, Irvin, three years older than Norman, the same age as the Jewish author of this novel, might have served in the war, as Wallant did, valiantly. Some of the tenants are Jewish. One old man has a string of numbers tattooed on his arm, indicating he spent time in a concentration camp.

Norman and Irvin's jobs feed into the stereotype of Jewish moneygrubbing. A significant element of the novel is that Wallent faces Jewish stereotypes, and other stereotypes, head-on.

At the end of chapter 10 [just past the middle of the book], Moonbloom says something with the fragrant aroma of Zen: "I am no longer Norman Moonbloom," he said aloud in the great privacy of the city night. And then, seeing the floral brilliance of windows and distant sign lights, he was suddenly confronted with a more terrible possibility, which made him bite the windy blackness and gasp, "Or I never was."

ENOUGH of me giving away plot points in the book. READ The Tenants of Moonbloom, y'all!!


Find out more about The Tenants of Moonbloom and its author Edward Lewis Wallant:

Info re the book at Amazon.
Info re the book at wikipedia.
Info re Edward Lewis Wallant at wikipedia.

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