Norman Moonbloom, over-educated and under-lived, works as an agent collecting the rent once a week from the tenants in the four buildings owned by his wealthy brother Irwin. The job quite literally makes him sick. The apartments are in varying states of decay and cleanliness; the elevator in one building hasn't even passed inspection. The tenants are a motley group of writers (including one supposedly based on James Baldwin), musicians, unhappily married couples, Holocaust survivors, and a talkative "candy butcher" to name just a few. They are alternately angry, lonely, evasive, chatty, delusional and unfortunately most of them want to tell Norman all about their problems. He finds it a dangerous and depressing job. Sometimes his tenants throw things; one has even taken to hitting on him in hopes of a rent reduction. Almost all of them have a lengthy list of broken things that need repairing; one tiny bathroom wall is bulging with a sinister growth that eats into its occupant's - and Norman's -mental psyche. And there's no money for the expensive electrician and plumbing bills.
But when Norman shakes himself out of his torpor and finds a solution to both his personal malaise and a way to facilitate the buildings' repairs, his interactions with his tenants suddenly become a series of necessary rungs, a ladder that is "strong and real and capable of lifting him" (and another reason why this jacket cover is so perfect). The joy of reading this novel is definitely in Wallant's wonderful character and room descriptions and the terrific dialogue. His language just zings whether describing the energy of a room, ("Books did splits on the battered bed") or nailing the precise human sadness of a tenant, ("Basellecci was a man in a long interim of age"). Anyone who lives in an apartment knows that the building itself has its own aural quirks and forms of communication. There's a wonderful scene where Norman has been varnishing the floors and accidentally paints himself into a corner. He has to crouch there overnight until the shellac dries:
He heard the water in the pipes, the steam in the radiators, the dim traffic sounds, the almost imperceptible noise made by the walls of an old building. He heard doors closing in the hallways, heard voices tacking the never silent air, heard electricity in wires, heard wind carefully shaping the complex architecture of the city, heard the strangest beatings and flushings.
This is a strangely uplifting and frequently funny novel about ordinary people co-existing in a busy, indifferent city and the importance of personal space, no matter how small or humble. A great companion read would be another NYRB Classic about the human interaction with real estate in New York - L.J. Davis's A Meaningful Life.