This new collection of short fiction by one of our most honored writers seems to me certain to alter his reputation in two contrary ways. Those who haven't read Malamud recently, or closely, may be surprised to see that he writes a generally slack and graceless prose and is frequently guilty of impossibly unwieldy sentence constructions. And those who recall him as a grimly realistic chronicler of the tribulations of immigrant Jews will note with pleasure the imaginative reach and extravagance - including surrealism and supernaturalism - of his best work.
The volume contains 25 stories, all but two chosen from his previous collections: ''The Magic Barrel'' (1958), ''Idiots First'' (1963), and ''Rembrandt's Hat'' (1972). Few will quarrel with the exclusions, but several of the included stories don't represent Malamud well, especially the two new ones, ''God's Wrath'' and ''The Model.'' Furthermore, the order in which these 25 appear here seems arbitrary: A relatively weak story leads off, and early stories alternate with later ones in a progression that makes no sense whatsoever.
My guess is that Malamud (who made the selection) may have hoped to disguise the surface similarities of stories which deal, again and again, with luckless and neglected small business men and their unhappy families. If so, he needn't have bothered - for the quality that makes his work memorable and important is the resonance it draws from its concentration on the themes of loneliness and victimization.
The core situation in his fiction may be described as the assertion of people's claims on one another; the human need to communicate and be charitable, to understand what is in others' hearts and minds. In ''The Mourners,'' a harried landlord finds he cannot evict an irascible, troublesome tenant; instead , he joins with his ''enemy'' in a ritual gesture of mourning and brotherhood. In ''Idiots First,'' the dying Mendel, desperate to provide care for his retarded son and strengthened by the love that motivates him, literally wrestles with death.
Several stories trace the consequences of the failure of charity. An elderly Jew in Rome tries to improve the life of his amoral Italian maid, and his inability to change her ways leaves its mark on him (''The Maid's Shoes''). A retired salesman hopeful of aiding a young widow and her children is repeatedly rebuffed, and takes his ''revenge'' in the Other World (''Take Pity'').
The themes of Jewish brotherhood and of the need to acknowledge and keep the faith infuse several of Malamud's finest stories. In ''The Last Mohican,'' painter-turned-art-critic Arthur Fidelman is accosted in Rome by Israeli refugee Shimon Susskind, who solicits his aid and offers to be his guide. ''I am a single individual,'' Fidel-man protests, ''and can't take on everybody's personal burden''; but he discovers that the claims of Susskind (Jewishness) are not to be denied.
''Man in the Drawer'' portrays an American writer in Russia who is involved in the fate of a Jewish dissident writer and is compelled to smuggle the latter's stories out of his repressive country. And ''The Silver Crown'' confronts a skeptical young student with a faith healer who promises to cure his dying father. The story brilliantly suggests that Ganz's inability to believe in the mysterious Rabbi Lipschitz causes the failure of the healer's ''magic.''
These stories work because they find vividly imaginative vehicles for communicating essentially simple (some will say sentimental) ideas. It's a credit to Malamud's artfulness that his often atrocious sentences don't destroy his stories. Here's the awkward opening of ''The Magic Barrel'': ''Not long ago there lived in uptown New York, in a small, almost meager room, though crowded with books, Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student at the Yeshiva University.''
Beneath the bumpy prose, however, we often feel his people's strong emotions in conflict. And such conflicts are heightened by Malamud's quite matter-of-fact employment of unrealistic situations and specific details.
''The Loan'' is elevated into fable by the revelation that the baker Lieb weeps into his dough, thus producing bread that customers clamor to buy. In ''Angel Levine,'' the stricken tailor Manischevitz's recovery of religious faith follows his denial, then acceptance, of the Negro angel sent to save him: The climactic message, ''believe me, there are Jews everywhere,'' concludes the story with stunning cumulative force.
The story I'd cite as best is ''The Bill,'' a compact, brutally effective tragedy in miniature: It's about a janitor who keeps piling up credit at a family-owned delicatessen (''If you were really a human being you gave credit to somebody else and he gave credit to you''); he cannot pay what he owes, even when his creditors' lives depend on it - and the results are quietly catastrophic.
The incursions into fantasy sometimes seem forced, and there's no denying the repetitiveness in Malamud's insistence that all men are brothers, responsible for one another. Still, I think it's easy to overstate his deficiencies of form and style, and underestimate the really ingenious conceptions that animate his tales and make us remember them.
These stories are about the experience of being a Jew, but they speak eloquently to all of us. Believe me, there are Jews everywhere.