Leonard Michaels Essay - Critical Essays


Leonard Michaels’s stories are most often admired for his whimsical style, his erotic satire, and his comic treatment of sexual violence. More than one critic has noted that his stories raise the old aesthetic/moral question of how it is possible to write about something horrible and hideous that is simultaneously hilarious and beautiful. Citing the influence of Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Isaac Babel, Jorge Luis Borges, and Franz Kafka, reviewers admire Michael’s fantastic plots and metaphorical style, which has been characterized as poetic realism. Combining fantasy and concrete realism, Michaels creates darkly terrifying worlds that keep readers laughing until they become appalled at what has made them laugh. As Michaels’s recurring autobiographical persona, Phillip Leibowitz, encounters Conradian hearts of darkness and secret sharers in the jungle of New York City, he is always amazed at the mysterious multiplicity of the world around him.

“The Deal”

In this account of an encounter between a young woman and a group of fourteen-to fifteen-year-old boys over the woman’s dropped glove, threat and tension shift back and forth between the boys and the young woman. The dangerous little dance between the woman and the gang (described by Michaels as a “monster of boys”) begins harmlessly enough as she asks them if they have seen her dropped glove. The teasing game of “keep away” that the boys play shifts to a possible threat to the woman when she takes control by asking them what they want for the glove. Pushed to “make a deal,” banter changes to barter as they demand ten dollars and she offers twenty-five cents.

The balance of power in the struggle shifts again when one of the boys demands a kiss for the return of the glove. Although she responds at first with nervousness, the woman switches to a businesslike tone as she agrees to the deal and goes with the boy to the doorway of her apartment. Female fear of male violence shifts to adolescent fear of female sexual power as the boy resists and is chided by the woman for being a chicken. The story shifts once more when after the kiss, the rest of the boys crowd into the doorway also demanding a kiss, pushing and shoving and knocking the woman down. The story ends with one of the leaders of the gang helping the woman open her door. When, once again reverting to a combination of childlike plea and male threat, he yells, “You give me something,” she shuts the door in his face.


Because of its combination of boyish Peeping-Tom comedy and horrifying, sexually stimulated violence, this has been Michaels’s most anthologized story, appearing in contemporary American short-story anthologies edited both by Tobias Wolff and by Raymond Carver. The narrator of the story is Phillip Liebowitz, a young Jewish boy featured in a number of Michaels’s stories, a preteen who, along with a...

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