Like his contemporaries Stanley Elkin and Wallace Markfield, Leonard Michaels is much beloved by other writers—first and foremost for the angle and thrust of his sentences. “What he cared about most of all was truth,” Michael’s friend Wendy Lesser wrote earlier this year in her memoir Room for Doubt. “He could hear truth in the rhythm of a sentence, his own or someone else’s.” And it’s true: Sentence by sentence, Michaels is as good as any writer you’re likely to run across:
She didn’t like me. So I phoned her every day. I announced
the new movies, concerts, art exhibits. I talked them up,
excitements out there, claiming them in my voice. Not to like
me was not to like the world.
Naked before the open door of his closet, where a harem of
fifteen jackets languished— mute, lovely receptacles of his
arms and torso—Finn was struck by the powerful idea: HIS.
At a place called Truck Stop, I ate lunch. Truckers leaned
toward each other, eating pills, coffee, and starch. They
looked fat, vibrant, seething with bad health.
My family came from Poland, then never went anyplace until
they had heart attacks. The consummation of years in one
neighborhood: a black Cadillac, corpse inside.
Michaels, who succumbed to lymphoma in 2003, at the age of seventy, was indeed the child of Polish immigrants; sickly, he spent his early childhood more or less confined to a small apartment on the Lower East Side. “Until I was five, I spoke only Yiddish,” he recalled. “To some extent, my intuitions and my expression of thoughts remain basically Yiddish.” Jewish diction— “These blankets you want to keep?”— was one thing that marked Michaels’s affinity with Markfield and Elkin, while the push and pull between Old World and New, desire and repulsion, and fiction and autobiography marked a certain affinity with Philip Roth: “My Uncle Zev told me about his years in a concentration camp,” Michaels wrote, in his story “Storytellers, Liars, and Bores.”
“Write it,” he said. “You’ll make a million bucks.” My friend
Tony Icona gave me lessons in breaking and entering. Zev’s
stories I couldn’t use. Tony’s lessons were good as gold.
Criminal life was intermittent and quick. It left me time to work
at stories and learn about tearing them up.
Michael’s first books, the story collections Going Places and I Would Have Saved Them if I Could, were received warmly, in 1969 and 1975, respectively. But he wrote slowly and painstakingly and revised obsessively, and his career failed to build momentum. The fame that ecstatic reviews, glowering good looks, and a Watergateera vogue for sexually adventurous Jewish- American writers might have brought eluded him. A third book of stories, A Girl with a Monkey (2000), contained eleven fictions culled from the earlier collections, which is also to say that their appearance, now, in The Collected Stories marks their third, or sometimes fourth, time in print.
Manette LaChance as Billy and Frank Langella as Harold in The Men’s Club, Peter Medak, 1986. Leonard Michaels wrote the novel and screenplay.
This is a complex publishing history, and seeing these stories launched again, into a literary climate that values factual information over expression, tends to shift the reader’s attention from Michaels’s sentences to the inner workings of his characters. But style is Michaels’s substance; psychology is not a strong suit. Take, for instance, his depiction of women. His abiding subject is the damage men and women can and do inflict on each other. But since his female characters are often weak, onedimensional, cold, or hysterical, his stories take some unpleasant turns: “She screamed and broke objects. Nevertheless, I refused to kill her.” (For this the narrator should get a prize?) Or somewhat more assuredly: “To make her know it, I broke her nose.”
The misogyny Michaels was often criticized for is most pronounced in Sylvia, the 1992 “fictional memoir” based on his early, disastrous marriage to an unstable, finally suicidal young woman named Sylvia Bloch. “I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding somebody when I’m gone,” Michaels’s narrator tells his wife, shortly before abandoning her, and New York, to attend graduate school in Michigan:
Instantly she flew at me, tearing at my face. I swatted her
hands away reflexively, with a sidewise motion, and must
have brushed her nose or slapped her hands into her nose.
I felt only her hands. I didn’t feel any part of her face. She
shrieked, “You broke my nose,” and lunged at the living
room window, tearing at the blinds and shrieking for the
police. She mutilated the blinds but didn’t manage to open
the window, and was still shrieking, “Police, police, help,” as
I dragged her away from the window and tried to hold her
still and look at her nose. She pushed me back and dashed
into the bathroom. Leaning over the sink, she stared closely
at her face in the mirror, saying, “It’s broken. Look.” It looked
no different, and then it did look different. I couldn’t tell.
Sylvia is a hysteric; the narrator turns out not to have broken this particular nose. Moreover, the descriptions are linguistically skewed—he swats (“reflexively”) and brushes, while she flies, tears, shrieks (thrice!), and mutilates—in such a way that whatever blame there is to go around rests squarely, insistently, on her shoulders.
“Sylvia was often in pain or a nervous, defeated condition, especially when she got her period,” Michaels writes in Sylvia. And: “She’d never say, ‘You’re walking too fast. Please slow down.’ She’d slow down, lag behind, let me discover that I was treating her like a whore.” And: “Sylvia could be happy and funny, but it is easier to remember the bad times.” The book is at its best when the outer world intrudes. Michaels’ portraits of the New York he and Sylvia inhabited are well drawn and vibrant:
A few blocks east, at the Five Spot, Ornette Coleman
eviscerated jazz essence through a raucous plastic sax.
The great Charlie Mingus was also there, playing angular,
complex, hard-driving music to a full house night after night.
In salient forms of life and art, people exceeded themselves
—or the self; our dashing President, John F. Kennedy, was
screwing movie actresses. Everything dazzled.
And as Diane Johnson notes in her introduction, his description of the typical writer’s tortured working day is equally on point. But the narrator’s sympathies seem to warp whenever he turns his attention back to Sylvia. There’s not much of a sense that he might have been complicit in her misery or even especially sensitive to it. And her death leaves the impression that everyone involved ended up better off.
But the things that make Sylvia a disturbing, uncomfortable book also make it a compelling one. Is Michaels, the memoirist, writing the fiction his own younger self might have authored? (Or vice versa?) What does it mean to write a “fictional memoir”— or a “memoir,” or “fiction”—anyway? Does the answer determine whether this is a cowardly book or a brave one? Moreover, is it really so easy to distinguish sadists from masochists? And if so, who here is which?
And, of course, who cares? One day, Sylvia comes home in pain, with a nail poking up through her sandal. The narrator looks at her impatiently:
For days thereafter, Sylvia walked about Cambridge pressing
the ball of her foot onto the nail, bleeding. She refused to wear
other shoes. I pleaded, I argued with her. Finally, she let me
take the sandal to be repaired. I was grateful. She was not
grateful. I was not forgiven.
The comma in that third sentence says a lot about despair—it’s worth more than the six words around it. The slow build of those last, staccato sentences—four syllables, five syllables, six!—says just as much about marriage. And while I can’t imagine Sylvia saving many marriages, I never get too excited about the books that do. (Oprah’s got an edge on me there, though lately she, too, seems to have been darkening.)
Sylvia came toward the beginning of a long winning streak for Michaels. His short stories grew longer, less compressed, and more complex, and The Collected Stories returns many of the best to print. “A Girl with a Monkey,” which begins: “In the spring of the year following his divorce, while traveling alone in Germany, Beard fell in love with a young prostitute named Inger and canceled his plans for further travel.” And the sprawling “Viva la Tropicana,” which takes place in New York, Cuba, and Miami and involves gangsters, dancing girls, sharks, and speedboats: It’s not the sort of thing you’d expect from Michaels, but he attacks the story with gusto and pulls it off with panache.
Last in the volume are seven perfectly crafted, interconnected stories about a mathematician named Nachman. (“People called Nachman Nachman, as if he were a historical figure,” Michaels explains. “He couldn’t remember anyone ever using his first name, not even his mother.”) This cycle, too, was a return to form, and for a writer who cared as much about his craft as Michaels did, that was no small thing. The men and women he described might have been out of joint, but the sentences stayed true to the end.
Alex Abramovich last wrote for Bookforum about Roberto Bolaņo’s The Savage Detectives.