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Leonard Michaels 1933–

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American short story writer and novelist.

Michaels's two collections of short stories, Going Places and I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, attain their impact by contrasting ordinary events in the lives of middle-class Americans with unsuspected, surrealistic violence. Michaels's bizarre humor, in which critics see various literary influences, balances the otherwise grim theme of his works: the lack of meaning in modern life.

His first novel, The Men's Club, is written in a format similar to The Canterbury Tales; the characters take turns telling the story of their lives. While some critics found The Men's Club too episodic, others lauded Michaels for his success in evoking the changing personality of a group from awkwardness, to intimacy, and then to something primitive—a Lord of the Flies transposed to California.

(See also CLC, Vol. 6 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

Joyce Carol Oates

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Going Places suffers from being unable to take itself seriously….

The best story in the group, "Going Places," leaves a man named Beckman on the brink of an ordeal he will overcome, and we are reminded of Christ in Concrete and other horrendous tales of physical suffering in which a man's wits and strength are reduced to nothing much, and only his will remains.

Other stories deal with a trio of pop characters or non-characters, Phillip, Henry, and the stuttering pathetic girl they share or seem to share, Margery. It is here that Michaels's talent fails him, for he simply cannot make us share a sustained interest in the wacky dialogue and the wackier activities of these three. And story after story resolves itself in comic violence, fights or orgies or self-annihilating tricks ("I started eating my face"). Charming though the bizarre antics may seem in the first few stories, they become largely tedious and unconvincing as the volume goes on and we realize that nothing, nothing is impossible because there is nothing on the page except words.

Michaels shows the influence of Malamud, but most obviously that of Donald Barthelme and Philip Roth. His own whimsical, antic style needs something harder behind it, something less arbitrary and less cartoon-like, if it is going to create fiction in proportion to his obvious intelligence.

Joyce Carol Oates, "Please Tell Me It's Just a Story," in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1969 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), March 30, 1969, p. 6.

Laurence Lieberman

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The key events in [Leonard Michaels' first collection of short stories, Going Places]—usually holocausts in the lives of his protagonists—are indistinguishable from the settings in which they occur. Settings are felt to be a physical extension of the agonized victims who inhabit them. I am constantly reminded by Michaels' emblematic stage sets that no other time and no other place could have fostered precisely the form or quality of torture that strikes the persona dumb, dead, or fiercely awake—excruciatingly alive for the first time…. These are not simply locales, settings—traditional background—ever. Life does not merely occur in these machines, edifices; life transfigures the forms that enshrine its daily happening, the forms merging with the bodies they enclose, altering and entering into their life stream.

In "Going Places," the title story, Michaels realizes a totally plastic, epidermal style. Every sentence is charged with a tactility of phrasing that suggests oddly that words are somehow being alchemized into skin. It is a style that gives new significance, a new literalness, to the expression, he put a skin on everything he said….

In two of the stories, "Crossbones" and "Intimations," Michaels is perhaps inventing a new genre, which may stand in the same relation to the conventional story as does the story, say, to the novella. The short-short form appropriates the compression and density of lyric poetry and brings them into fiction. Only a couple of pages in length, these stories need to be reread many times, and gradually, they leave the reader feeling the sense of totally apprehending complex human alliances—or misalliances—ordinarily possible only in the longer forms. One gets a marvelous grasp of the total life-network of the characters in Michaels' short-shorts, as though the essence of a whole novel has been successfully encapsulated in a couple of pages. Michaels' most impressive device in these stories is the elaboration of a long sinuous "crocodilian" sentence which manipulates syntax to catapult words across gulfs of experience; not unusually, seven or eight transitions—in thought or action—are scaled within a single synchromeshed sentence, a sentence that can shift instantly from high gear to low without friction.

The weaker stories in this volume are the wacky sexual fantasies. In some of them Michaels resorts overmuch to clever stunts. The characters display gimmicky dialogue and quirky personality trappings—nervous tics, limps, mutilations, all manner of Freudian and Reichian hangups—but the varieties of gaminess don't conceal the hollow characterization or the frayed seams in a story's overextended structure. These erotic stories are often wildly funny, but the humor is pitched to a scale of laughter that approximates—in its zany crudeness—the cartoons and jokes one finds in Playboy.

In the better stories of this type, "City Boy" and "Fingers and Toes," Michaels succeeds in burlesqueing the stock responses of slick pornography and achieves erotic satire of unmistakable originality….

Michaels' language is a created, a freshly discovered, idiom revealing the remarkable plasticity of people who are at once trapped—and fantastically bursting alive—in their bodies. The body is always discovered shockingly anew to be the most grotesquely beautiful and delicate of machines; the body, acted upon by the crowded machinery in close quarters of the overpopulated Manhattan, can re-enact through exquisite sexuality—and thereby translate into personality and spirit—the numbingly complex physical intensities and can transform into a reordering synthesis countless and unrememberable daily physical contortions in autos, elevators, and phone booths. Sexuality in the stories assimilates monstrous mental and physical violations of the partner, but transcends them all in a wisdom of the body which can never be learned in any other way, and which must seem—in the world of these stories—to be worth any price that must be paid. (p. 132)

Laurence Lieberman, "Words into Skin," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1969, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 223, No. 4, April, 1969, pp. 131-32.

William C. Hamlin

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[Leonard Michaels] is a very funny man. Given a world where "no one feels anymore," where there is "no connection with elemental life," humor would appear out of place. On the contrary, [the stories in Going Places] remind us that humor is one of the few things that does have a place. Otherwise, as less resourceful fiction demonstrates, an overdose of anguish can become routine, even dull.

Mr. Michaels himself is never dull. His ability to set the commonplace alongside the unexpected and horrifying … demonstrates the maddening disorientation of modern man. Carefully controlled but always giving the impression of associative freedom, his prose drives from one fresh image to another. It tells us again and again that in spite of the odds against it, something is being said, not completely to be sure, nothing final, but something natural and necessary.

Comparisons with the free-flowing style of Donleavy, with the raw nerve ends of Salinger, with the scenic horrors of Purdy and O'Connor, with the overall range of Malamud are obvious and to the credit of the writer.

William C. Hamlin, "On the Brink," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 25, 1969, p. 49.

Ronald Christ

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[Leonard Michaels' stories in Going Places] present a weirdly heightened world where simple acts and feelings are translated into nightmarish reality by means of a distinctive style that gives substance to humorous, horrifying whimsy. "Only a dream, but so is life," remarks the narrator in "Sticks and Stones."… Just as in dreams, embarrassment, frustration, crazy violence and agony of mind expressed as torment of body are the stuff of these stories; but also as in dreams, everything is madly, pathetically funny—not to the dreamer of course, but to us who read the dream…. The balance between the plaintively humorous and the grotesquely sad is what gives full dimension to Michaels' fiction—that and a charged language in which every sentence surprises so vigorously that you will hold your breath just waiting to see if he can keep it up. He can.

Emily Dickinson said a good poem would blow off the top of your head; A. E. Housman said it would make your whiskers bristle; but one of Michaels' own characters offers the best norm for these stories: "I could say things about you that would make your nipples pucker." They do just that, and the shock of your visceral response will keep you coming back to Going Places to feast on a rare talent in perfect control of its power. The book's title tells you all you need to know about the career of this young writer. (p. 571)

Ronald Christ, "Books: 'Going Places'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1969 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. XC, No. 21, September 19, 1969, pp. 570-71.

Elliot L. Gilbert

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In Going Places, Leonard Michaels has given us what must surely be one of the longest 192-page books of short stories ever written. And since this remark, intended as a compliment, may be open to misinterpretation, let me quickly add that the apparent extraordinary length of the volume is the result not of any … longueurs in the work but of a narrative and stylistic density so marked that it causes whole worlds to form, pass through their cycles, and vanish away on a single page. Where, for example, most writers, dedicated to capturing the synaptic leap on paper—but worried, perhaps, about not being understood—work as hard to reproduce the nerve fibers as they do to depict the energy that passes between them, Michaels, in some sort of haunted hurry (going places?), concentrates entirely on rendering the electric charge as it jumps the gap. (p. 422)

Taken together, the pieces present a sometimes surrealistic, frequently very funny vision of that particular brand of New York-Jewish hysteria about which one might have supposed very little new could be said. But Michaels brings to what is today familiar enough material (boy meets girl at a neighborhood orgy) a compression of language and an intensity of imagery which constitute the real excitement of this first book. (pp. 422-23)

Michaels' virtuoso style runs to dazzling cinematic jump cuts ("Isaac") and to flashbacks ("Sticks and Stones") so complex and intentionally confusing as to obliterate any sense the reader may desperately be trying to retain of "real" time. But these familiar devices for undercutting the illusion of process and causality in fiction are in these pieces entirely functional. That is, the writer is obviously committed on every level of his work to the vision of things which his structures imply: to a sense, for example, that the world is only to be experienced in discrete, timeless, essentially static moments of intense living, moments which owe little or nothing to past or future but which are, to insist on the metaphor, the veritable sparks in the act of jumping the gap.

The title story of the collection makes this point most directly. Beckman, its protagonist, has dropped out of conventional, middle-class life, has rejected his parents' ambitions for him, and has taken to taxi driving to satisfy some obscure desire for random motion. (p. 423)

The theme of the story, conveyed as much by its structure as by its clearly symbolic events, is every man's need to discover for himself the experience which will most infallibly embody his own particular fate. In this quest for the ultimately expressive experience, movement is a sure sign of unfulfillment, a sign that the goal has still to be reached. Thus, the story opens with a long, meandering, grammatically ambiguous sentence, detailing Beckman's equally random and unfocused career. (pp. 423-24)

In one way or another, nearly all the stories in this collection set out from the irony implicit in the title to show that, as D. H. Lawrence puts it, "the end cracks open with the beginning," and that therefore the notion of progress with which we customarily fill up the space between beginnings and ends is in large measure illusory. The point is made quite explicitly in "City Boy," a tale which begins and ends with the same scene—a passionate romp on a living-room rug—and in which the author suggests the absurdity of the protagonist's progress from the first seduction to the last by having him accomplish it stark naked and walking on his hands. But other of the stories circle around the same idea…. And in perhaps the most brilliant of the pieces in the collection, "Sticks and Stones," random, violent movement is gradually reduced to a fixed, timeless moment of pure motion just as the protagonist, a compulsive sprinter, gradually rarefies and slows to the fixed, timeless, Platonic pure form of the sprinter—"a head on legs. Running." (p. 424)

Perhaps Going Places is a remarkable first step in its author's quest for the ultimate page, the perfect paragraph which will somehow apocalyptically expand to occupy all time. Or perhaps Michaels will now turn to longer and more extensive fictional modes. In any case, in this brilliant first book he has surely fulfilled his own definition of success. He is not merely going places; he has already gotten there. (p. 425)

Elliot L. Gilbert, "Reviews: 'Going Places'," in The Kenyon Review (copyright 1969 by Kenyon College), Vol. XXXI, No. 125, 1969, pp. 422-25.

Anthony Decurtis

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In his two collections of short stories [Going Places and I Would Have Saved Them if I Could], Leonard Michaels depicts the contemporary struggle to shape a sensibility sufficiently intelligent, flexible, detached, and controlled to negotiate the contemporary world. The characteristic setting for his stories is New York City—the modern urban landscape, violent, unpredictable, energetic, taxing—challenging and meaningful enough to be a "vale of soulmaking," dangerous and depersonalizing enough to be a hell. Michaels criticizes the modern tendency to perceive the problems of life in such an environment as intellectual puzzles, to be resolved by calling in reserves of greater and greater amounts of consciousness, but his criticism is not the silly, fashionable kind that derides all intellectual processes in the name of the emotional life betrayed. While some of his characters "suffer from too much consciousness … a sort of modern disease in which the operations of mind exceed the requirements of life," Michaels' positive characters are witty, smart individuals for whom thinking is an active, energetic process which culminates in actions in the world. By isolating the pitfall of being entrapped by mind to the point of emotional paralysis, of seeking in the mind for solutions which only action can bring, Michaels has defined a psychological dilemma central to contemporary American fiction.

The most pressing problem Michaels' characters face is maintaining their humanity in the brutalizing circumstances of contemporary life. Violence becomes the natural force in a world in which nothing is really natural. At once random and horrifyingly specific in its focus, violence represents a twofold threat. Its victims must resist turning themselves into unfeeling objects, able to cope because nothing can penetrate their guard, at the same time that they withstand the temptation to elevate themselves to the level of secular holy men, "seized" and purified by violence "as the spirit seizes the prophet." Similarly, the depersonalization of intimate relations poses a threat to anyone who wants to be more than another indistinct face in the mass: "it wasn't easy to think, to ignore the great pull of the worm bucket and pretend to individuation." More generally, Michaels is concerned about the forces working in the twentieth century to annihilate any meaningful notion about the significance of the individual life.

Michaels' stories evoke a sense of how tenuous the props are which provide some semblance of continuity to modern lives…. The kinds of relationships and work which provide more substantial links to one's days and weeks are difficult to locate and certainly to sustain. The tendency is to paste the fragments of one's life together and be like Beckman, the cabdriver in "Going Places," described as "waiting for change to come into his life as if it might hail him from a corner like another fare."… (pp. 101-02)

The disruptiveness of modern life is a crucial theme in Michaels' stories, but too great an awareness of the problem debilitates some of his characters as much as no awareness of it at all dehumanizes others…. Discussions about "the keystone of modernity," "what's modern," the loss of "connection with the elemental life" occur with some frequency in Michael's stories and are symptoms of the very problem they assume as their topic. That these conversations typically take place at parties, the inevitable setting in contemporary literature of interactions which are artificial and contrived with the pretense of being intimate and communal, further emphasizes their shallowness. (pp. 102-03)

The question of moral knowledge itself is not abstract nor philosophical for Michaels, but rather intuitive, emotional, and affective…. [But] one should not confuse this notion with a shallow primitivism in which the problems of life dissolve if one merely has one's guts in the right place. In the "pits" of the mind, intellect and emotion can fuse, producing energetic, appropriate action. Morality in Michaels' stories is passionate, intelligent engagement with the world, not the measurement of one's doings against one or another internalized, external standard. The complexities of life in the twentieth century do not allow for the latter.

The images Michaels uses to evoke the psychic underworld which can give us "pure, deep knowledge of right and wrong" are those of darkness and blackness. The light of reason and logic does not provide the means by which the situations of life can be comprehended and seen as subject to our control. Genuine insight is the product of emotion and intellect, and itself produces movement. (p. 103)

As a stylist, Michaels is most interested in condensed, compact expression. His desire for compression, which obviously does not allow for very much standard description, places rhetorical responsibility for communicating a story's meaning on its verbs. The emphasis on action and movement suggested by Michaels' striking verbs is reflected also in the title of some of his stories: "Making Changes" and "Going Places." While stagnation is deadening, motion makes us tap the sources for self-knowledge within the self. (p. 104)

[Many characters in contemporary fiction] are connoisseurs of the grotesque; they hunger for experience, to see and do it all and intensely, but are finally left jaded and unsatisfied; they are initially appalled by their violent, horrific world, but ultimately confused about how to come to terms with it. Does the notion of shock lose its currency when one is shocked at every moment and when shock is compromised by fascination? Indifference seems at times to be the necessary strategy of a survivor in an environment in which brutality is the stuff of everyday, but the lingering sense of guilt and shame it entails intimates that such indifference may be morally indistinguishable from cowardice. Finally, the combination of positive intentions and powerlessness is deadly, because the real presence of either raises suspicions about the authenticity of the other. The ungenuine life beckons like a desert mirage when reality is emotionally and morally undifferentiated. Leonard Michaels' stories effectively dramatize the ennobling power of resistance to that false appeal. (p. 110)

Anthony DeCurtis, "Self under Seige: The Stories of Leonard Michaels," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1979), Vol. XXI, No. 2, 1979, pp. 101-10.

Robert Towers

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There is no need to overpraise "The Men's Club." It is more novella than "important" novel. Only three of its characters are developed enough to be in any way memorable; the narrator in particular remains ghostly, his profession and participation never made credible. Toward the end, the satire of California encounter-group jargon becomes too broad … and blunts the wittiness that elsewhere prevails. But such weaknesses inflict little damage. "The Men's Club" is excellent comedy with a mouth-puckering aftertaste, a book for head-shaking and long sighs of recognition as well as laughter. Its style is full of small verbal surprises that match the glancing quality of its insights.

Evidently the shifting of his fictional scene from New York to the Bay Area has been good for Mr. Michaels's art. There is a new expansiveness, an ease, in the writing of "The Men's Club" that distinguishes it from the rather twitchy and abrasive quality of the short stories…. The literary influences so evident in the stories have now been largely assimilated. Leonard Michaels has become his own man, with his own voice and a subject substantial enough to grant his talents the scope they have needed all along. (p. 29)

Robert Towers, "Men Talking about Women," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 12, 1981, pp. 1, 28-9.

Stephen Goodwin

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[The] temptation to write a perfect novel is … natural, especially to a writer like Leonard Michaels, who comes to it by way of the short story….

The novel is the great test for a fiction writer—but a test of what? Peter Taylor, surely one of our best short story writers, once said in an interview that he suspected that a talent for the shorter form was incompatible with a novelistic talent. The novel, alas, is much messier than the short story, and some short story writers—the impeccable Borges, for one—won't touch it. The difference between the two seems to have to do with perfectibility.

The Men's Club begins as if Michaels is willing to risk imperfection. "Women wanted to talk about anger, identity, politics, etc." says the narrator, a college professor who has just been invited to join a men's club. He balks. "I should have said yes immediately, but something in me resisted. The prospect of leaving my house after dinner to go to a meeting. Blood is heavy then. Brain is slow. Besides, wasn't this club idea corny?…"

Right away we hear the distinctive cadence of the narrator's voice and feel the strongly conflicting desires within him. He attends the meeting, of course. (p. 4)

Yet what takes place … is strangely, ruefully subdued. The seven men who've gathered there—a doctor, a therapist, an accountant, a once-famous basketball player, all "solid types"—cast about at first to define the purpose of their club…. They end up telling each other stories. (pp. 4-5)

The form of this novel owes something to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, in which the pilgrims lighten their journey by telling stories. To make sure that we don't miss the connection, Michaels has named one of his characters Harold Canterbury. And to make sure that we don't miss the ironic nature of the comparison, he has made Canterbury the most silent and grudging member of the club, the most distrustful of the stories that are told.

Chaucer's stories are wonderfully artful and full of guile. They reflect the personality of the teller in a sly, singular way. The stories told at the men's club are artless and they don't reflect personality so much as they reflect a condition….

The stories in The Men's Club may not apply to millions—the members are white, prosperous, and more or less monogamous—but almost any of the stories could be told by any member of the club. They all speak in a direct, muted voice like the narrator's (the only exception is Kramer, poor Kramer, who is, like, very Californian). And while the characters are very distinct from one another physically, Michaels calls attention to their similarities rather than their differences. He wants us to recognize that their stories are common property, ours as well as theirs.

He also wants us to recognize that the stories have no point. Several times during the evening, one of the men begins to speak with enthusiasm, only to realize that the story doesn't lead anywhere….

That accounts for the dignity which these men acquire during their long evening together. They don't know what their stories mean, but they are willing, even driven, to tell them, to entrust them to the others, and that's enough. During their meeting, they move from awkwardness to intimacy to something deeper, more dangerous and more primitive than sympathy…. By the end of the night all seven men are howling together, literally howling, like a pack of wolves….

That lament is the way this meeting has to end, the wail of loss and longing these men are doomed to raise. It is the perfect conclusion to the drift of their emotions—perfect, but the only thing eerie about that howl is that it is so dispassionate. It is represented as a metaphor, not an event. The howl cannot be said to happen….

I don't think that it is too much to ask that a novel about passion be passionate itself. In The Men's Club, however, the passions are figurative, not felt. This funny, brilliant and, yes, perfect novel is oddly sedate, and that may be too great a price to pay for perfection. We get the meaning, but we miss the experience. (p. 5)

Stephen Goodwin, "Talk Around the Clock," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), April 26, 1981, pp. 4-5.

James Walcott

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[The Men's Club] is a talky little novella about a group of men who troop into a vine-covered Berkeley home to rake over their pasts and give their consciousness a lift. Since Michaels is one of those fiction writers overfond of toning up their prose with homages to Kafka, I waited for the book's obligatory reference to the illustrious K., and I was swiftly rewarded. Chapter Three begins: "'I wait like an ox,' says Kafka." The novella itself is a piece of Kafkaesque slapstick…. Michaels has a flair for deadpan comedy and slightly askew lyricism, but he's also capable of show-offy coarseness (as when he describes a man sucking in marijuana smoke "against crackling sheets of snot").

As a pop allegory, The Men's Club lacks clarity, compactness; the spilling, sprawling secrets of these Berkeley clubbies soon leave the book awash in chatter and confusion. Brief as the book is, it's still a long-winded wheeze.

James Walcott, "Books: 'The Men's Club'" (copyright © 1981, Esquire Associates; used by courtesy of the magazine), in Esquire, Vol. 95, No. 5, May, 1981, p. 19.

Anne Tyler

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[The Men's Club] seems more a short story writer's idea of a novel—a mistaken idea, though understandably so, and an oversimplified one, in which the novel is seen as merely a longer form of short story. This is not longer by much, either…. It takes more time to read, but delves no further in that time; it features a larger cast of characters, but reveals no new layers within them as the story progresses. Even its considerable virtues are a short story's virtues: stunning efficiency, speedy flashes of description, and a breathtaking singleness of purpose. (p. 31)

[The] men seem poorly characterized. They can be distinguished from one another only by the grossest of quirks, a kind of shorthand method of identification…. Essentially, they do not differ; they are "talking heads," combining their voices to state the embattled male viewpoint. Least distinct of all is the narrator, who appears to have been plopped into the story solely to record and react—a faceless "I."

Certain lines in this book made me laugh; others went too far, and I flinched…. There's an underestimation of the reader here that's just short of insulting. Give us some credit! we want to tell the author. Don't you think we get the idea? Like many extended jokes, The Men's Club fosters a feeling of edginess; it teeters between understatement and overstatement. There's always the possibility that part of the joke has slipped past us undetected, while other parts are hammered in too forcefully….

I am awed by Leonard Michaels's dash and verve, annoyed by his obtrusive cleverness, and hopeful that in the future he will loosen his control enough to allow us a deeper glimpse into a most ingenious and fertile mind. (p. 32)

Anne Tyler, "Men Will Be Boys," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1981 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 184, No. 18, May 2, 1981, pp. 31-2.

David Reid

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Yeats says that a civilization is a struggle for self-control. "The loss of control over thought comes toward the end; first a sinking in upon the moral being, then the last surrender, the irrational cry, revelation—the scream of Juno's peacock." If so, this particular civilization plainly is in deep trouble.

Cultural scouts may find suggestive evidence (if more is needed) in this remarkable, haunting, and very funny first novel by Leonard Michaels [The Men's Club]…. As the narrator, a Berkeley professor, concedes, "Men's groups. Women's groups. They suggest incurable disorders."

On the other hand, The Men's Club seems to be the kind of novel whose strategy is to invite you to understand it too quickly. It is not about the Decline of the West. Though wickedly knowing and accurately, even passionately observed, it is only incidentally a satire on California manners and mores. If Michaels brings back frontline reports from the war of the sexes, it is by way of conducting a tour of Yeats's old establishment, the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart….

Early notices of The Men's Club tend to agree that the characters are a baffled, desperate, dangerous, and probably empty-headed lot. And yet, as R. P. Blackmur says somewhere. "To find a way of seeing what has happened to us sometimes seems our highest legitimate aspiration." What else, really, is their club about?

On the other hand, one understands why The Men's Club has already reminded reviewers of Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Chaucer. Let me add to the list Kafka, Kierkegaard, and Hegel on self-consciousness. Leonard Michaels' stories established him as a master phenomenologist of dread and desire. The Men's Club will confirm and enlarge that reputation.

David Reid, "Jolly Good Fellows," in The Threepenny Review (© copyright 1981 by The Threepenny Review), Vol. II, No. 2, Summer, 1981, p. 8.

David Evanier

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One way to evaluate a new work is to place it against works of art from other times that deal with similar subjects and settings, and determine whether the insights and achievements of those earlier works have been enlarged and built upon—whether, in fact, the work under consideration makes contemporaneous an old tale. The Iceman Cometh and That Championship Season most readily come to mind as predecessors to The Men's Club.

The Men's Club also deals mainly with a group of men in a male domain. While it is not a play, its form (it is almost entirely in dialogue rather than narration), makes it seem akin to one. And Michaels's forte is the creation of some of the most piercing dialogue I have read recently.

In such a comparison, The Men's Club succeeds at a high level. It does take us further. It is no masterpiece, but on its own terms it is a considerable novel. Nothing in Michaels's two previous books of short stories (very short and stylized) prepared me for the relentlessly dark and brilliant strength of these pages. Here is a middle-aged predatory Berkeley inferno of loss and chaos. (pp. 1088-89)

[A group of men gather together] to "tell their life stories" to each other. What they relate is something else: sharp memories of other women that have stayed in their heads, marital fights, stories of givers and takers, pals unjustifiably worshipped and losers who prey on the storytellers' consciences. Stories triggered by other stories add up coherently and eloquently to a paradigm of human confusion.

These are the stories within the main story, which is the account of the evening with the men: the conflicts and the shifting moods among them as they become heavy with marijuana, alcohol, and the mountains of food they steal from the refrigerator…. They eat with Bacchanalian glee…. As the night progresses, the men fight, throw knives, destroy furniture, and howl together in unison. The message they are howling is that they do not understand themselves, their wives, their lives—that their lives are over.

They are ridiculous figures, but Michaels does not aim at ridicule. He is dealing with the absurd and the inexplicable….

The men's monologues reveal people totally locked into themselves. Most of them are predatory. Those of them who admire others are losers who enjoy being taken advantage of. The women come off no better: they too are plunderers, fixated, chaotic, lost. If there is a central weakness in the novel, it may be that its characters uniformly serve the author's thesis: "Life is an unfair business, who ever said otherwise? It is a billion bad shows, low blows, and number one has more fun." And such a view of humanity may explain why the men all sound alike….

A writer must achieve a high level of craft today to evoke unsentimental compassion for his characters. For we know too much, and we expect our writers to know even more. Hickey's confession in Iceman of murderous hatred for his wife (and the murder itself) would no longer strike us as the final truth of a work. Leonard Michaels breaks new ground, in the tradition of the artist who does not stand still. (p. 1089)

David Evanier, "A Man's World," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1981; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XXXIII, No. 18, September 18, 1981, pp. 1088-89.

Carol Rumens

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 407

The Men's Club is a provocative title that seems to herald male chauvinism's answer to The Women's Room and novels of that genre; a firing of defensive salvoes, perhaps, or even a counter-attack claiming that the problems caused by negative discrimination are nothing to those engendered by the positive variety. But in fact, for all its surface liveliness, Michael's novel turns out to have little to add to the increasingly lacklustre debate on sexual politics; its effect is merely to corroborate traditional views of the male and female character (female = nuturing, male = aggressive), despite a hint of tables being turned (almost literally; a dresser is crashed to the floor by an irate wife) in the final pages.

Michaels writes a choppy, muscle-flexing prose, intending, perhaps, to express an ironical stance towards the Maileresque style of literary tough-talking. Having accustomed oneself to nouns lopped of their articles and full-stops like kicks in the shins, one must admit that such a style has the virtue of tightness and immediacy, and also that it modulates easily into dialogue, a useful facility in a novel whose action takes place in the context of a group discussion….

The narrator's role as conscience of the group remains a shadowy one. Though a kind of catalyst who, despite his private reservations, encourages the others to keep talking, he too is shown to be at the mercy of the collective mind, allowing it to sweep him away in its headlong dive towards its worst instincts. Beer and marijuana peel off the first layer of inhibitions, helped by the heady sense of being "off the leash"….

It is a little as if Golding's Lord of the Flies had been transposed to middle-class, middle-aging California….

The symbolism of food dominates the book. Even the most sustained and pivotal of the sexual confessions is about a man's desertion of the woman he loves because she steals a forkful of his pudding. It is not easy to sympathize with his chagrin, particularly as the dish in question is strawberries under flaming chocolate, a concoction that sounds more like a metaphor than a dessert. The novel falls short of its ambitions for a similar reason; at crucial moments the action seems to be dictated by the manipulation of symbols rather than the compulsions of character.

Carol Rumens, "Off the Leash," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4098, October 16, 1981, p. 1219.

Corinne Robins

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405

The Men's Club is Leonard Michaels' version of a Walpurgis Night, of a Freudian male herd reborn in a group of California men, at least two of whom are aware in the hip, consciousness-raised Berkeley tradition of "feeling your own feelings." But despite the occasional use of such cliches, The Men's Club is not satire because there is more sadness than mockery in the author's treatment of such awareness, and because Michaels is too desperate and despairing a writer….

Michaels uses the psychological jargon the way he uses different ways of eating and screwing to describe, to try and reach the raw edge of being human, to examine the emotions on which human behavior turns….

Michaels is the opposite of the graceful, accomplished observer in the manner of the New Yorker's John Updike. He is, rather, a precisionist of painful emotions. He aims, as his narrator says, for "definite matter. Truth pressed by flesh." Thus, Michaels is involved with revelation, with the kind of literature that Kafka, Herbert Huncke, Raymond Carver and Jean Rhys sometimes deliver. He belongs to that group of writers who are concerned with meaning as salvation, and with the extreme ends and purposes of life, writers whose lives in their books at least seem to become an unending tug of war of pleasure and pain….

The Men's Club is structured more like a drama than a novel, a drama observing the classical unities of time and space. The men's individual stories are a kind of action, a play within a play for the men to react off of while responding to one another as audience. The personality of the group, the shifting control of individual men, what psychologists call interaction in The Men's Club becomes a raw experience…. All of the group's actions assume ceremonial proportions as part of Michaels' unfolding drama. The Men's Club does not have the rhythm of a novel: it is too time-structured. It is as if there is something about Michaels' orchestrating of the men's movements that is too controlled and too formal….

The Men's Club is a short book, an easy read and, as a feminist, I felt it excluded me. Now I am aware that its easiness was an illusion, as the men's pain and urgency via the novel have become embedded in my life.

Corinne Robins, "'The Men's Club'," in The American Book Review (© 1982 by The American Book Review), Vol. 4, No. 3, March-April, 1982, p. 8.

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Michaels, Leonard (Vol. 6)