In this book Malamud shows a gallows humor beyond any of his other books and in places it can only be described as grotesque. Malamud's choice of themes is not promising: The story of a writer struggling to turn ideas into a coherent novel has been the centerpoint of many a book and seldom delivers an inspiring and enjoyable work of art. Racial conflict (in this case between urban Jews and blacks) has also been covered many times. By combining those two themes, we get a double dose of both: two deeply troubled writers, one black, one Jewish, likely to destroy themselves and each other along the way.
It's a period piece, set in NYC in the midst of its darkest days of rent control and urban decay; its citizens tearing at each other in their frustration at the conditions in which they find themselves. The book has been decried by some as racist, depicting African-Americans as violent, irresponsible, anti-Semitic. I disagree; it strikes me as brutally honest about the interracial and socio-economic tensions that existed in US cities then -- and now.
Toward the end of the book there are times when the tale spins somewhat out of control as the protagonists descend in their own unique form of madness. But overall, it's a fine piece of work and in my view, Malamud's best.
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