The lives of Frank Alpine and Morris Bober cross accidentally; knowing nothing about each other, one is a somewhat reluctant criminal and the other, a pathetic victim. But they begin slowly to establish a relationship which is similar to that of son and father, a relationship that develops in to Frank’s assuming much of Morris’ identity. In Section One, we were concerned with Morris’ character and his world; now we consider Frank’s character. Section Two also introduces many motifs that are developed as the novel progresses. In particular, we discover Frank’s need to confess and his difficulty in confessing, and, like Morris, his tendency to ruin his chances. We observe also Morris’ growing reliance on Frank, the variety and similarity of relationships between several fathers and sons in the neighborhood, Ida’s fear that Frank will be interested in Helen, and the pathos of Helen’s aspirations and circumstances.
Frank’s unexplained arrival in the neighborhood and his tenacity in seeking a relationship with Morris suggest an intense attraction toward Morris and his store. During his first conversation with Morris, Frank is tormented by a desire and a reluctance to say something important. As we realize that this is an urge to confess, we understand that Frank was one of the holdup men. Frank’s desire to go to work for Morris suggests a need for roots as well as for an opportunity for expiation, and the characterization and background of Frank do much to explain both of these yearnings.
Frank is an orphan and he has been a drifter. He has left the West Coast to search for opportunity in the East, an emphatic reversal of the common idea that California is the land of opportunity; this is a strange quest for Frank when one considers the strikingly unpromising neighborhood he has come to. There is a suggestion that Frank is depending on chance rather than intelligence and effort as the source of opportunity, but it is possible that his desire to change himself has — at least for the moment — attracted him to the world of Morris’ poverty and suffering. Frank seems to have a hidden realization of a need to accept suffering and benefit from it, though he is unable to understand the similar need which he sees in Morris.
Frank is first characterized by his appearance and by his interest in St. Francis. His broken nose may symbolize the ill-fitting divisions in his character but eventually it suggests that the roughness of his character is superficial, a fact that Helen Bober will learn to understand. Frank’s admiration for St. Francis’ loving acceptance of poverty predicts his own salvation through suffering and begins an identification with St. Francis, reinforced by Frank’s name, that will culminate with Frank embracing poverty as if it were a bride. Frank’s Franciscan character traits will develop as he learns the meaning of dedication and love within the Bobers’ world. Now, however, Frank is full of guile, of doubts, and of contradictions.
When these are overcome, he will be on his way toward the purity of heart of a St. Francis. Frank’s emphasis on St. Francis’ taking a fresh view of things relates to his own desire for a fresh start and also reveals an imaginative side to his character which has not had a chance to develop but which might interest Helen Bober.
Frank is variously dishonest. He thinks nothing of lying to explain his presence in Morris’ neighborhood. It is a small dishonesty, but it is antithetical to Morris’ straightforwardness and trustfulness, thereby preparing us for the grossness of Frank’s stealing from such a person. Here Frank’s incidental dishonesty has some similarity to Ward Minogue’s immorality, his total disregard for the integrity of other people. When Frank asks Morris to hire him, his claim that he is completely honest represents a partial intention, not a reality. Frank would like to be honest and would like to be thought of as honest, but he has not yet learned the value and meaning of a consistent integrity. Frank’s claim also represents a somewhat childish rationalization that his best intentions are somehow a reality.
Frank’s attitude toward Jews reveals a parallel duplicity in his character. Frank tells Morris “I always liked Jews,” which is a lie, for he persists in thinking of Morris as “the Jew.” His statement is an attempt to believe that he is broadminded, but it is also an embarrassed effort to overcome barriers between himself and Morris and to ingratiate himself with Morris. Frank’s persistence in seeing Morris as “the Jew” shows that he continues to think in prejudiced cliches, using Jews as targets for his restless hostility. Frank’s feelings about Jews, however, are mild compared to Ward’s hatred.
Although Frank is underhanded about some things during his first long talk with Morris, he is quite candid about much of his character. When he tells Morris about his self-defeating behavior, he characterizes himself as a luckless loser, as is Morris, and his explicit comment on his tendency to act too quickly and to accomplish nothing forewarns us of much that will happen between him and the Bobers. Like Morris’ bad luck, Frank’s is partly based on weaknesses in his character, and Morris intuits that Frank’s feelings of lucklessness and hopelessness are like his own, a similarity which will contribute to the growing bond between them.
Frank succeeds in ingratiating himself with Morris by listening to him sympathetically and by cleverly seizing the means to wash his windows. Frank’s destitute condition awakens Morris’ natural compassion, and Frank’s stealing milk and rolls from Morris and sleeping in the basement contribute to the growth of a bond between them, for Morris’ pity for Frank increases, and possibly Frank’s truthful explanation of the reason for his theft helps Morris to overlook Frank’s past lies. In any case, Morris does not judge Frank a thief and presumably believes Frank’s repeated assertions that he is honest. As Section Two concludes, two ironies converge: Morris’ head wound, for which Frank is partly responsible, and Frank’s stealing milk and rolls; both create an opportunity for Frank to begin working for Morris and for him to establish a relationship with the Bobers.
Frank, especially at the end of Section Two, seems to be clinging to the Bobers as if his life depended on it. When Morris collapses and Frank has a chance to start working in the grocery store, he acts like a desperate man. His swift donning of Morris’ apron is the first of his continuing acquisitions of Morris’ identity, and his exclamation that he needs the experience is so transparent a rationalization of his need to attach himself to Morris that the scene suggests that Frank knows that he wants more than a grocery clerk’s experience — he wants some knowledge or transformation by sharing Morris’ suffering and morality.
The introduction of Detective Minogue into the narrative provides material to round out the four father-son relationships in the novel. Detective Minogue’s stern and cold behavior toward his son is probably the source of Ward’s viciousness. Ward’s actions are anti-puritan responses to his father’s harsh Puritanism. Yet father and son are more alike than we may guess at first. Likewise, Julius Karp and Louis share shallow and materialistic dispositions. And Sam Pearl’s gambling shows a manipulativeness paralleled in Nat’s attitude toward Helen. But as surrogate father and son, Morris and Frank have a relationship containing much potential warmth and a potential education for the son figure, an education which receives some impetus from Frank’s various betrayals of Morris.
Helen’s aspirations and her awkward feelings about Louis Karp continue to show the wistfulness of her situation. Her relationship with Nat Pearl, sketched in Section One, suggested that Nat’s materialism is a large barrier to a relationship between them because he is too ambitious to consider marrying a poor girl. In the scene between Helen and Louis at Coney Island, we see that Louis’ materialism makes him unacceptable as a husband for Helen. Helen’s gentleness with Louis, however, shows that her intellectual interests and her aspirations haven’t given her a snobbish view of Louis. When the scene with Louis is considered in the context of Helen’s relation with Nat, it may suggest that she has been slow to see that Nat’s materialism, like Louis’, accompanies a certain shallowness. Malamud’s placing the scene between Helen and Louis immediately before the scene showing Frank’s success in beginning to work for Morris is a hint that her hope of “something happening” may be answered by the unexpected arrival of Frank Alpine.