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The Improbable Moralist | The Nation

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The Improbable Moralist

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Leonard Michaels (1933-2003) was an original; everything he wrote, like it or not, came alive. His prose moved at a fast clip and paid readers the compliment of assuming they could match his mental velocity, with a concise, pungent and pyrotechnic style that tolerated no flab. It won him admirers as diverse as Susan Sontag, William Styron, Larry McMurtry and Charles Baxter--Michaels's reputation always stood higher with fellow writers than with the general public. One reason may have been his avoidance of make-nice redemptions and his insistence on hard truths (like the waiter in his delicatessen story who tells customers there's "no such thing" as lean pastrami). But it's also fair to say that his preoccupation with betrayals, sexual randiness and aggression could strike some readers as nasty, hard to take. There was another side of Michaels, tender, appreciative and compassionate, which gained strength as he grew older. The publication of his collected stories should win him many new fans, offering as it does ample proof that he was among the few essential American short story writers of the past half-century. His short roman à clef Sylvia, also reissued, about a hideous start-up bohemian marriage in Greenwich Village, is one of the most powerful pieces of autobiographical prose to have resulted from this age of the memoir.

About the Author

Phillip Lopate
Phillip Lopate is the author of Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan (Anchor) and editor of the anthology American...

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Michaels burst on the scene in the '60s with the incendiary stories that were collected in his first book, self-deprecatingly titled Going Places (1969). Many of these stories followed the adventures of Phillip Liebowitz, a young man on the make, driven by envy and id, set loose in the mean streets and salons of Manhattan. Down below were "the bar fighters, the city's most deeply kicked, stabbed and slashed"; up above, in fancy Central Park West apartments, another kind of violence. In "The Captain," Liebowitz, desperate for employment, goes to a party and tries to butter up the hostess:

"Do you really want the job, Mr. Liebowitz?"
 I said, "Let's fuck."She blinked and shook her head. She sighed.
 I had been too quick, too smart. I shrugged like a man with nothing more to say, and looked across the room at them, sitting close together on a couch, talking. To express life's failure, I lifted a cigarette.

These stories satirize the bourgeois swingers who rationalize bad behavior with pronouncements like "I'll kill you. To me the connection between love and death is very close" or "I will say one thing, Cosmo, you meet people in an orgy."Again and again, Liebowitz finds himself having sex almost inadvertently with the hostess while her husband (sometimes his best friend) is banging on the door. The sex is usually compulsive and sprinkled with literary references: "I caught her hand, dragged her down like a subaqueous evil scaly. We kissed. She kissed me. I bit her ear. We kissed and there was no outside except for the phone ringing again. I let it. We had D.H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer, triste." The clipped sentences mock a hard-boiled persona: Philip Marlowe by way of that other Phillip, perennial English-lit doctoral candidate Liebowitz.

These early stories merge recognizable Gotham settings with Oedipal nightmare surrealism. A father bursts in on his daughter in bed with the naked Liebowitz, who scurries out onto the street without his clothes; there he is admonished by the elderly doorman for not being nice; he slips back to his girlfriend only to discover her father has had a massive heart attack and is in the hospital; she whispers, "Fuck me." The characters seem helpless, dread-filled, driven by blind appetite and impulse.

If these early stories resist garden-variety realism, the ones in Michaels's second book, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (1975), go further in the direction of the postmodern: list-stories, parables, fragments, pastiches. The title story, for instance, is a brilliant collage of reflections on the author's immigrant family, Lord Byron, Karl Marx, Borges and the concentration camps. Right in the middle is a section titled "Black Bread, Butter, Onion," a sort of urban pastoral prose poem that conveys Michaels's talent for capturing the everyday while measuring the guilt-ridden distance his character has come from the Old World sufferings and sacrifices of his relatives:

The black bread should be Pechter's, but the firm went out of business, so substitute bialys from the bakery on Grand Street, between Essex and Clinton, on the right heading toward the river, not Soho. With your thumb, gouge and tear bialys open along the circumference. Butter bialys. Insert onion slices. Do this about 3:00 a.m., at the glass-topped table in my parents' dining room, after a heavy date in Greenwich Village. My parents should be asleep in their bedroom, twenty feet away. Since my father is dead, imagine him. He snores. He cries out against murderous assailants. I could never catch his exact words. Think what scares you most, then eat, eat. The New York Times, purchased minutes ago at the kiosk in Sheridan Square, is fresh; it lies beside the plate of bialys. As you eat, you read. Light a cigarette. Coffee, in the gray pot, waits on the stove. Don't let it boil. Occasional street noises--sirens, cats--should penetrate the Venetian blinds and thick, deeply pleated drapes of the living-room windows. The tender, powdery surface of the bialys is dented by your fingertips, which bear odors of sex; also butter, onion, dough, tobacco, newsprint, and coffee. The whole city is in your nose, but go outside and eat the last bialy while strolling on Cherry Street. The neighborhood is Mafia-controlled; completely safe. You will be seen from tenement windows and recognized. Smoke another cigarette. Take your time. Your father cries out in his sleep, but he was born in Europe. For a native American kid, there is nothing to worry about. Even if you eat half a dozen bialys, with an onion and coffee, you will sleep like a baby.

In subsequent collections, such as Shuffle (1990) and A Girl With a Monkey (2000), Michaels would continue to juggle the roles of good son and bad boy. His superb list-story, "In the Fifties," records: "I knew card sharks and con men. I liked marginal types because they seemed original and aristocratic, living for an ideal or obliged to live it. Ordinary types seemed fundamentally unserious. These distinctions belong to a romantic fop." Meanwhile, "I was a teaching assistant in two English departments. I graded thousands of freshman themes.... I wrote edifying comments in the margins. Later I began to scribble 'Awkward' beside everything, even spelling errors."

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