I have several responses to works that really amaze me: occasionally I may want to take some aspect of the story out for a drive myself--what else does this character do, what else could happen in this setting, what happens to the premise if we look at this this way; I may want to take the story apart to see how it works; or I may want to transform the work into some other medium, to hear the characters speak in a radio play or see the action in a comic book.
Malamud's "Idiots First" feels like a puppet show, a sort of twisted Punch-and-Judy or morality play without any clear message. Part of this response is due to the irreality of the world, despite the reality of the situation.
Mendel is a dying man with a handicapped adult son named Isaac; and Mendel--who knows that he has only this one last night--needs to raise the money necessary to send Isaac to his uncle in California. What can he pawn? Who can he ask? What dangers does he have to avoid?
In many ways, the story is predictable: the pawnbroker will take the gold watch, but not for what Mendel would want; the rich man can offer dinner, but doesn't give money; the park where they would rest has some odd goings-on, with a policeman searching for a man. So far, so O. Henry, right? I mean, there's no irony, but there's the steady sense of failure dogging the hero here, just as in an O. Henry story.
But we're not in an O. Henry world, as the language of the story repeatedly reminds us. When Mendel wakes up.,"He drew on his cold embittered clothing..." How can clothing be embittered?
But what really sets this story apart and makes it amazing and troubling is that irreality, that strangeness that suffuses so many of the scenes. When they go to a park, Mendel notes that the leafless tree has a thick branch going up and a thin branch hanging down--until they walk away and the thick branch is hanging down and the thing branch points up. When Mendel finally gets an item to pawn, they are followed by a shadowy figure named Ginzburg (7). Is Ginzburg the pawnbroker? No, Ginzburg is the character that Mendel warned Isaac of at the beginning. So who is he?
That's never clear, though after following Mendel, it seems like Ginzburg works at the train station, since he's in charge of the gate that will stop Isaac from getting on the train. And when Mendel begs for kindness, Ginzburg gives an almost satanic response:
“What then is your responsibility?”That "anthropomorphic business" might be a mis-statement for something like "philanthropic" but it keeps bringing me back to those embittered clothes and that moving tree. As if Ginzburg is exactly part of that anthropomorphic business: a satanic author figure who controls Mendel's sadness.
“To create conditions. To make happen what happens. I ain’t in the anthropomorphic business.”
So it's doubly interesting that Mendel wins through no greatness of his own. It's just that during their scuffle, Ginzburg see himself in Mendel's eye and sees that he is a monster. What author hasn't felt that in describing their characters' hardships?