The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud, 1958

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by Bernard Malamud, 1958

In form, content, and, perhaps most of all, moral vision, critics have long regarded "The Magic Barrel" as quintessential Bernard Malamud. In the story Leo Finkle, an unmarried rabbinical student more familiar with books than with life, has been advised that he will find it easier to land a pulpit if he is married. Since Finkle has had virtually no experience in matters of the heart, he reluctantly agrees to engage the services of a professional matchmaker. Thus the wheels of Finkle's amorous quest and its ironic initiation are set into motion. Pinye Salzman is not only a matchmaker as colorful as Finkle is drab, but he is also the catalyst who forces Finkle to see how sterile, how spiritually impoverished, his life has been.

Initially the shy rabbinical student is radically different from the mercurial matchmaker. Finkle represents the force of law, while Salzman stands for the power of flesh, but it soon becomes clear that Salzman, for all his vulgarisms, betrays a "depth of sadness" that Finkle uses as a convenient mirror for his own.

The progress of the typical Malamud protagonist nearly always involves identification with suffering and with a strategy for taking on the burdens of others. In Malamud's most earnestly serious novels similar movements are chronicled both with a straighter face and a tongue more prone to lash out at social injustice than to lodge ironically in its cheek. Nonetheless, comic misfortunes dog his protagonists' collective heels. In Finkle's case sympathy is as much his leitmotiv as fish is Salzman's. Each of the much handled cards from Salzman's "magic barrel" represent a person whose aloneness is a counterpart of his own.

That Salzman plays the con man to such a willing dupe is hardly surprising, for Finkle has the words "live one" written all over his face. At a used-car lot he would no doubt kick the tires and play the role of a discriminating consumer; at the matchmaker's he eyes each new prospect with similar suspicions. It does not matter, for so far as Salzman's sales pitches are concerned, the two commodities are virtually the same: "Sophie P. Twenty-four years. Widow one year. No children. Educated high school and two years college. Father promises eight thousand dollars. Has wonderful wholesale business. Also real estate. On the mother's side comes teacher, also one actor. Well known on Second Avenue." In this way the juxtaposition of Finkle's growing hesitation about "buying" and Salzman's increasingly aggressive brand of "selling" create what might have been a purely comic situation. Finkle, however, gradually comes to see Salzman's portfolio of marital candidates as a microcosm of the world's suffering and his shoulders as the proper place on which it might rest.

In short, Finkle no longer imagines a world in which hundreds of cards, each one longing for marriage, are churned about and finally brought together. Rather, the much handled cards of Salzman's portfolio make it clear that others also suffer from the loneliness and indignation of being damaged, passed-over goods, and Finkle's traumatic meeting with Lily Hirschorn forces him to realize for the first time "the true nature of his relationship to God, and from that it had come to him, with shocking force, that apart from his parents, he had never loved anyone." "The Magic Barrel" is, then, a love story, one that operates simultaneously on the levels of eros and agape. That Finkle's learning leads him to admit his essentially loveless condition, his particular death of the heart, is a necessary precondition for the comic victimhood that will follow.

And yet Lily Hirschorn, important though she might be as a wake-up call to Finkle's slumbering soul, is simply another frantic figure yoo-hooing after a life that had already passed her by. There are dozens of similar stories in Salzman's magic barrel. Moreover, if Finkle has been conned by Salzman, so has Lily. After all, she expected to meet a biblical prophet, a man "enamored with God," and instead found herself walking with a man incapable of passion either in the physical or the spiritual senses of the term. In the Finkle-Salzman-Hirschorn triangle the end result is initiation. Finkle finds out how and what he is, and in the context of the story this information provides the tension, the essential ground condition, that moral bunglers are made of.

By contrast, Stella, Salzman's wayward daughter, provides the occasion for Finkle finally to act. Unlike the typical Salzman profile, Stella's dime-store photo suggests that she "had lived, or wanted to—more than just wanted, perhaps regretted how she had lived—had somehow deeply suffered." In a world in which suffering is the standard for one-upmanship, she is the hands-down winner. A Lily Hirschorn may have wanted to live, and Finkle himself has the urge to try, but it is Stella who has actually been there. And it is through the figure of Stella—her name suggesting the ironic star that guides Finkle's destiny—that the prospective rabbi hopes to "convert her to goodness, himself to God."

Indeed, it is Finkle's highly stylized movement toward Stella that turns him into a saintly fool, at least in the sense that his goal of spiritual regeneration is incommensurate with his activity. The story's concluding tableau crystallizes the matter of Finkle's salvation and/or destruction without providing the luxury of a clear reading direction. Finkle runs toward Stella, seeking "in her, his own redemption" in ways that make this now passionate rabbi akin to the biblical Hosea. Salzman, however, remains just "around the corner … chanting prayers for the dead." Is the kaddish for Finkle? For Stella? Or perhaps for Salzman himself? In much of Malamud's early fiction ironic affirmations become an essential part of his aesthetic, as if movements toward moral change are not enough while total regeneration is not possible. And in Malamud's greatest stories, including "Angel Levine," "Take Pity," and "The Jewbird," moral allegories slip easily from the gritty surfaces of realistic detail to surrealistic fancy and back again. At their most achieved Malamud's short fictions have the feel of Marc Chagall paintings.

—Sanford Pinsker