A Men's Club: The Fiction of Leonard Michaels
Ditsky, John, Hollins Critic
The term minimalist is no more satisfying or exact when it is used with respect to literature than when it is applied to music, but if the term has any appropriate critical relevance, it should be right to use it in connection with the stories of Leonard Michaels, who can be said to have been writing "minimalist" fiction when certain currently popular practitioners of the genre were still in grammar school. Michaels may not himself care for the term, but he writes pieces with such enormously concentrated coiled energy that they can almost be termed elliptical; the reader comes away from them feeling as if a full literary meal has been consumed, single lines somehow having contained more than single lines ought by rights to contain. In letters accompanying his statement of cooperation with the writing of this article, Michaels states: "Virtually everything I've ever written is terse." And again: "I publish very little compared to various contemporaries, and never publish anything too heavy, that is, long." Michaels's equation of length with sheer bulk is revealing, positing as it does a credo, an eschewal of turgidity, with which his output has been wholly consistent.
That output consists of four slim volumes published over little more than two decades, and by the same fine publisher. Each has been slightly shorter than its predecessor, almost as though the author had made doing so a point of honor. The first of these, Going Places, collects fiction first published during the late 1960's, and to read these again after twenty years or so is to recognize how well Michaels captures the tone of that most romantic era. I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (1975) is very much the stylistic mate of the first book, a point to be discussed later on. The Men's Club appeared in 1982, and was subsequently turned into a film with a Michaels screenplay. Though this vehicle did not apparently sit well with the critics, a recent home viewing convinced this writer that those critics might not have known just what they were watching; certainly the writing is sharp and crisp and recognizably Michaelsian. And last year, Shuffle appeared, an assemblage that the jacket blurb calls "autobiographical fiction in the form of confession, memoir, journal, essay, and short story." Other pieces have yet to be gathered together.
It is this "autobiographical fiction" aspect of Michaels's writing that has to be dealt with at the outset. Michaels apparently appears in many of his own pieces, frequently under the alias of Phillip Liebowitz. Doubtless, some future biographer will have a field day relating Michaels's life to his fictions, the writing is so full of naked candor, particularly with respect to relationships with women. (Three of the books are dedicated to females only by first names; the fourth appears to be meant for Michaels's parents.) This article, however, is intended to deal with these fictions purely as fiction, and to avoid all possible taint of literary gossip, even to the point of avoiding asking personal questions that Michaels might well have been willing to answer.
Yet as an author, in his awareness of his Jewishness and in his honest portrayal of male sexuality, and especially in his rigorous intellectuality, Michaels is reminiscent of a better-known writer whose upbringing took place just across the Hudson from Michaels's New York childhood (he now teaches in California), Philip Roth. In fact, Roth and Michaels--and Alexander Portnoy!--are of an age; all were born in 1933, the year the Nazis took power. Comparisons of the work of Philip Roth and "Philip Liebowitz" are inevitable; this article intends to avoid them as much as possible. If comparisons between Michaels's characters and, say, Roth's Nathan Zuckerman result from this article, however, its author will not mind at all.
Leonard Michaels's fiction is energized by a novel sort of tension between an often academic intellectuality and an only seemingly indulgent sexuality, itself a symptom of a Romantic and arguably immature lifestyle on the parts of many of his characters. …