(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Leonard Michaels’s first collection of stories, Going Places (1969), was nominated for the National Book Award in 1969, and his second, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (1975), received a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice Award in 1975. The “new” stories in A Girl with a Monkey, his third collection, include “Viva La Tropicana,” which appeared in Best American Short Stories, 1991, and the title story, which was chosen for that yearly anthology in 1997. With the exception of these two pieces, plus “Tell Me Everything” and two versions of the same story—“Honeymoon” and “Second Honeymoon”—the remaining stories here have been selected from his first two volumes—five fromGoing Places and six from I Would Have Saved Them If I Could.

Among the selected stories are Michaels’s two most famous anthology pieces—“Murderers” and “City Boy”—and such highly praised stories as “The Deal,” “Manikin,” and “Going Places.” “The Deal” depicts an encounter between a young woman and a group of fourteen- to fifteen-year-old boys over the woman’s dropped glove. The balance of power in this seemingly modest struggle shifts when the woman intimidates the boys by seductively asking them what they want for the glove. Female fear of male violence changes to adolescent fear of female sexual power as one of the boys is chided by the woman for being a chicken when he is not sure he wants a kiss for the return of the glove. The story shifts again when the rest of the boys crowd into the doorway also demanding a kiss, pushing and shoving and knocking the woman down; it ends when one of the leaders of the gang reverts to a combination of childlike plea and male threat.

With its combination of boyish Peeping-Tom comedy and horrifying sexually stimulated violence, “Murderers” is Michaels’s most anthologized story. The preteen narrator, Phillip Liebowitz, featured in a number of Michaels’s stories, climbs up the roof of a building with several friends to watch a bearded young rabbi and his sacramentally bald wife make love in their apartment across the way. As the boys become excited, one falls off the roof to his death, leaving only his ring finger caught on the gutter, and the rabbi calls out the window, “Murderers.” The story ends abruptly with the boys being sent to a New Jersey camp overseen by World War II veterans. The story has a strange lyrical quality as the narrator, a grown man recollecting the event, places it within the context of coming of age, saying that when it occurred, he wanted “proximity to darkness, strangeness.” At the end of the story, the narrator lies in his bunkhouse listening to owls, considering the mystery of the lessons he has learned about desire, danger, and death.

Second only to “Murderers” as an anthology favorite, “City Boy” also features Phillip Liebowitz, this time as a young man having sex with his girlfriend on the living room floor while the girl’s parents sleep in the adjoining bedroom thirty feet away. Liebowitz’s encounter with the girl’s father is broadly comic; he stands “spread-legged, bolt naked, great with eyes” face to face with the father, a sudden secret sharer like two men “accidentally [meeting] in hell,” before running out of the room “naked as a wolf.” The comedy increases as Phillip realizes that he needs poise to walk down the street naked. “I [am] a city boy,” he thinks. “No innocent . . . from Jersey. . . . My name [is] Phillip, my style New York City.” Later, after the girlfriend brings his clothes and tells him that her father has had a heart attack, he goes back to her apartment, thinking, “This was life. Death!” When she gets a phone call that her father is going to be all right and that her mother is going to stay all night with him in the hospital, Phillip and she “sank into the rug as if it were quicksand.” This is another coming-of-age lesson for Phillip Liebowitz, who encounters in typically comic fashion basic elements of desire and danger. Being cast onto the city streets stark naked in the middle of the night is the ultimate comic image of vulnerability, punishment for transgressions, and the unaccommodated self.

A number of critics consider Michaels’s “Going Places” one of his best. The story focuses on the aftermath of a savage attack on a New York cab driver named Beckman in which death is made close and tangible to him. Even as he begs his attackers to take his money, they beat him as if he were a “dumb, insentient bag,” mocking his cries for mercy. After this meaningless and mindless attack, which has encouraged Beckman to end his aimless drifting and to take control of his life, he starts a new job as a painter...

(The entire section is 1950 words.)