Mendel, an old man in Bernard Malamud‘s story “Idiots First,” is about to die. But he must find the entire sum of money with which to send his adult son Isaac, who today would be considered “mentally challenged,” to live with Isaac’s elderly uncle before Mendel does die. The money is infernally difficult to obtain.

In this last period of his life, Mendel’s burden is not really Isaac but Ginzburg, the grim reaper and a creature of “awful wrath.” To this supernatural follower-of-a-cosmic-law Mendel must succumb. The letter kills. But Ginzburg can be cast to the side. And, not a mere “idiot,” Isaac can be rescued for a time.

Malamud’s tale is a provocative jewel wherein a hard life is, alas, followed by desperation. And the tale is edifying.