The Improbable Moralist

The Improbable Moralist

Leonard Michaels’s fiction captured his evolution from sex-obsessed misogyny to self-identified moralism.


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.

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.”

“Are you experienced?” Jimi Hendrix demanded. Michaels came of age at a time when being experienced seemed to require forcing yourself to violate prudence and common sense: Like Norman Mailer’s “White Negro” or Philip Roth at his raunchiest, or the filmmaker James Toback in Fingers and The Gambler, Michaels had a naïve craving to be “cool.” But he always acknowledged self-mockingly the potential shallowness of such adventures. Is the nature of experience to sleep with as many women as possible, to gamble, to hang out with gangsters, kill a man, sell drugs? Or is it to learn to sit in one’s room, calmly and contemplatively, as Pascal recommended?

Michaels took a teaching job in Berkeley, where he lived for the last decades of his life, save for a period near the end in Italy. As James Baldwin fled America for Paris to save himself from being eaten by rage, so Michaels abandoned New York, which he saw as a ruthless killer-city, for the milder climes of the Pacific. Reading Sylvia, that excruciating, harrowing account of his first, mutually punishing marriage to an emotionally disturbed woman who, when he finally decided to leave her, took revenge by committing suicide in his presence, you understand why he had to get away.

As Michaels entered middle age, his stories deepened and mellowed; he grew fonder of ordinary people, more stoically realistic. There was less evidence of a player’s need to show off. Oh, occasionally he would relapse into razzle-dazzle sensationalism, as with the silly “Viva la Tropicana,” where Jewish gangsters spray bullets and take Cuban mistresses. But overall, a solacing sadness replaced frantic hysteria. He began to look back at his youthful competitive angst with detachment, as in the story “Honeymoon”:

I felt envy, a primitive feeling. Also a sin…. According to Melanie Klein, envy is among the foundation stones of Brain House. Nobody is free of it. I believed envy is the chief principle of life: what one man has, another lacks. Sam is smart; hence, you are stupid. Joey is tall; hence, you are a midget. Kill Sam and Joey, you are smart and tall.

Ultimately, this social Darwinist outlook, bred in the Lower East Side ghetto of Michaels’s youth, where bright Jewish boys vied like rival gang members for college scholarships and dates, had to give way. But not before it had propelled Michaels through a careening, womanizing existence; he married four times. He could be, as they say, “difficult.” This may be the moment to admit that I knew Lenny and considered him a friend, though we rarely saw each other, living as we did on opposite coasts. He was a handsome, moody, casually erudite man who strutted (he loved Latin music, the sensual art of its dance movements) and brooded (he had a touch of the obsessive about him, and seemed to go around sniffing hostility in the air). On the other hand, he was one of the kindest, shrewdest men I’ve ever known. Wendy Lesser, who often published him in her Threepenny Review, has written a wonderful portrait of Lenny, loving yet clear-eyed, in her recent memoir Room for Doubt. She admits he had a temperamental, touchy side, but she also notes that he was enormously generous, especially toward younger writers, a rare trait in the literary world. Interestingly, Lesser says she prefers Michaels’s essays to his stories. I would not go that far, though he was a marvelous essayist (Montaigne was his god). I will say he increasingly tried to complicate the frontier between fiction and nonfiction. He published diary extracts as short stories, fascinated with how the minimalist journal entry could bear the heart of a tale. As the guest editor of a special fiction issue of Ploughshares, he published my “Against Joie de Vivre,” though I kept insisting it was a personal essay. Michaels had a broader, more inclusive idea of genre. He insisted on calling Sylvia first “a fictional memoir,” then “a novel,” though it was, from what I gather, entirely factual. In any case, I read it as a memoir.

One of the ways his own fiction-writing evolved in an essayistic direction was that he became increasingly receptive to aphorism, digressive reflection and throwaway wisdom. Nowhere was this shift to wisdom more pronounced than in his final, impressive suite, The Nachman Stories. These seven beautiful short stories, brought together for the first time in his posthumous collection, feature a protagonist-mathematician who lives a quiet life in California. We are explicitly told that Nachman “wasn’t especially sensual,” that his “need for ecstasy was abundantly satisfied” by working out mathematics problems and playing the violin, that he was “a strict observer of limits. He didn’t fool around.” In other words, he is not ruled by appetites–in some ways the opposite of Michaels’s earlier alter ego, Phillip Liebowitz.

The tension in these last stories thus shifts from the consequences of acting out to those of restraint and right action. In one story, Nachman goes so far as to place his hand momentarily on the thigh of a Vietnamese haircutter for whom he has a mad crush, and agonizes afterward about possibly having disrespected her, though she is clearly interested in having an affair with him. In another story, Nachman wonders whether it is proper to burst the balloon of a mathematician who has claimed to solve a celebrated problem by showing him where he has gone wrong in his demonstration. In yet another story, he broods over whether to tell his best friend, Norbert, that his wife, Adele, has been cheating on him.

People who told unbearable news to friends, as if it were their duty, then felt very good about themselves while their friends felt miserable–Nachman was not like those people. Besides, to feel good about oneself was important only to narcissists….
 [He does tell the wife, Adele, with whom he is also friends, that she is talking nonsense when she says she was “helpless” to resist the affair.] “I don’t believe that experience, for its own sake, is the highest value…. There are limits.”
 ”I think you mean morals.”
 ”O.K., morals. Yes, morals. You have something against morals?”

In The Nachman Stories, Michaels openly acknowledged that he was a moralist. Of course, he had been one from the start; but now he was willing to identify with a good man who insisted that we take responsibility for our actions, that experience is not the end-all. I am not saying that Michaels became Nachman any more than he had earlier been Liebowitz; but I am saying that he’d reached a stage in his life when he was interested in exploring a surrogate self who believed in boundaries, in acting like a mensch, and whose sense of value would derive in large part from work. Nachman’s friend Norbert mocks him: “You live a small life. Somebody gives you a pencil and a piece of paper and you are a happy Nachman. Like a kid on a beach.” Nachman calmly explains: “When I solve a problem, I collect a piece of the real.” Here, I think Michaels was directly speaking about his life as a writer.

This is how Leonard Michaels put it in a journal entry: “Writers die twice, first their bodies, then their works, but they produce book after book, like peacocks spreading their tails, a gorgeous flare of color soon shlepped through the dust.”

That “shlepped,” placed where it is, testifies to his capacity to goose a sentence. If prose makers can be divided into sentence writers and paragraph writers, then Michaels was more of a sentence writer, in the manner of Isaac Babel, who famously declared that a period should come with the piercing effect of a bullet. But “shlepped” also signifies Michaels’s debt to Yiddish. Many of his vivid sentences exist in a kind of syntactical exchange between English and Yiddish inflections: “Perhaps a girl with so much needed someone like him–a misery.” Just before he died, he wrote a fine essay in Threepenny Review about the Yiddish language. And it was surely no accident that he gave his last protagonist the same name as that great Hasidic storyteller, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Michaels never stopped reflecting on the condition of being Jewish. Now that he is gone, it is easier to place him in a broader context, as part of that astonishing flowering of American Jewish writing that included Bellow, Malamud, Mailer and Roth, toward which he can be seen as both filial heir and mischievous critic.

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