Written in the early 1970s, The Tenants is a book of its time. And that’s the problem. It’s a political narrative and such politics having dated quite badly in places.
Set in Brooklyn, the sole tenant remaining in a rundown tenement is novelist Henry Lesser. Determined to finish his third novel before moving out of the decrepit sixth floor apartment, Lesser refuses to be bullied, cajoled or bought out by landlord Levenspiel. Instead, the writer chooses to struggle in an unserviced apartment building open to vagrants as its vacant floors are slowly vandalised. But this solitary pursuit is interrupted by the arrival of Willie Spearmint, a fellow writer, taking up rooms to pursue his own writing.
An uneasy truce exists between the two, reflecting the unease of the time on the conflict between blacks and Jews prevalent in Brooklyn (and beyond) at the time. William (later Bill) is politicised but is conflicted by his relationship with Irene – a white actress. He wants to improve his writing and, early in the narrative, seeks out Lesser’s opinions. But, whilst praising the rawness of the writing, criticism from the experienced novelist results in rejection of ‘white’ and ‘Jewish’ structures.
It’s a conflict that remains current, increased by Lesser’s attraction to Irene. Spearmint (‘the black’) comes and goes, placing demands (some real, some imaginary) on Lesser (‘the Jew’) as the latter deals with Levenspiel’s attempts to evict both men and demolish the building. But, as both men struggle with their art, so that wary truce slips and slides. Lesser is just a little too interested in Irene, even if Spearmint is dismissive of his ‘bitch’. Lesser appears closer to the end of his undertaking, Spearmint returns to his beginning time and time again, uncertain as to what he tis trying to say.
Malamud writes magnificently at times in this fraught tale and social commentary – but 70s sensibilities and language inevitability jar reading such narratives in 2022. And as such it undermines.