The Tenants of Moonbloom by Edward Lewis Wallant is an unjustly neglected American gem. A deliciously peculiar novel, comic and melancholic in equal parts, it takes us to a down-at-heel New York at the turn of the 1950’s and the dreary life of daydreamer and rent collector, Norman Moonbloom. Norman’s days are spent chasing rent from hapless tenants, whilst attempting to dodge their numerous demands, complaints, and often riotous domestic dramas. Too sensitive for the world of the mercenary slumlord, he will undergo a quiet epiphany against a disintegrating backdrop of leaking taps and treacherous wiring.
A student until the age of thirty-two, Norman’s extensive education doesn’t appear to have done much for his self-esteem. Describing himself as ‘a small man of definite limitations,’ he’s put aside a bookish life to take a job with his ambitious landlord brother. Operating from a dingy basement, the self-declared most educated rent collector in NYC, is crestfallen that his sad desk has nothing to show but a ballpoint pen, receipt book, and burgeoning tray of unpaid bills.
His personal life is, unfortunately, as regrettable as his day job. Virginal, lonely and skint, Norman’s evenings revolve around canned food and reading in bed while the New York traffic bleats, honks, and roars on the streets below. Possessed of an unusual insularity, he is somnambulating through life. Until that is, the tenants of Moonbloom have their way.
Friday is rent collection day and our chance to meet them. Wallant is brilliant in his wry description of a disparate bunch, generally united by gripes about their rundown apartments. Within a couple of hours, Norman has deflected worries about a death-trap elevator, refused a request for air-conditioning on the grounds that even using a toaster strains the building’s elderly wiring, and gently chided a couple of louche musicians, whose room ‘as usual, showed signs of recent orgy.’
Later, we’re introduced to Mr Basellecci, an Italian gentleman with a grievance, who has long complained about the alarmingly swollen and damp-logged wall of his toilet chamber. He tells Norman that he’s scared to use it.
‘I cannot relax…my sphincter is paralysed with dread.’
He may well sue for damages.
In a nearby apartment, Sheryl Beeler has a very coquettish way of adding to Norman’s agitation, her seductive kimono-clad routine leading Norman to overlook the fact of her rent payments coming up short each week. Many tenants come forth, too many, a vociferous inundation. Along with the bellyaching, they attempt to confide in him, share their secrets ( ‘Last night my manhood slipped away from me. I could not summon the rod of my virile office’)
Norman doesn’t want their intimacies, he’s indifferent to their lives.
Until the day he isn’t.
Often squalid, always vivid, Wallant’s droll tale of urban humanity and salvation provides a marvellously original snapshot of bygone New York. In an excellent introduction by Dave Eggers, we learn that Wallant was a contemporary of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. Destined for great things, his early death left us with only four novels.
An eccentric and touching read that deserves to be more than a cult classic.
The Tenants of Moonbloom by Edward Lewis Wallant is published by NYRB Classics, 264 pages.