Reading Between the Lines: Collecting Leonard Michaels

The recent publication of Leonard Michaels's The Collected Stories has inspired speculation that he will finally be recognized as an equal to fellow Jewish-American writers Philip Roth and Grace Paley.

The recent publication of Leonard Michaels's The Collected Stories has inspired speculation that he will finally be recognized as an equal to fellow Jewish-American writers Philip Roth and Grace Paley. This would be a shame. To consider Leonard Michaels an under appreciated version of Roth or Paley is to misread and misunderstand his brilliance and skill. The Collected Stories includes Michaels's first two story collections, Going Places (1969) and I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (1975), and selections from three later books - Shuffle (1990), To Feel These Things (1993) and A Girl With a Monkey (2000). It also includes seven stories about a mathematician named Nachman, a series of short works that Michaels was working on when he died in 2003 at the age of 70. The Collected Stories is not merely a handy compilation of disparate works. As a single volume, it allows us to explore the range and diversity of Michaels's writings. Much of this, including the Nachman stories, is fairly traditional, with sentences that are sharp and precise. "My family came from Poland, then never went anyplace until they had heart attacks," reports the narrator in "Murderers," the first story in Michaels's second collection. But to appreciate Michaels's uniqueness is to appreciate his experiments in style and structure. The first sentence in "Crossbones," for example, is more than 300 words long, taking up the better part of a page. I wouldn't want Roth to change anything about his writing, but even when he has toyed with different kinds of narratives - like the self-contradictory sections of The Counterlife or the dialogue-only Deception - there's little that's experimental about the writing itself. Not so with Michaels. I Would Have Saved Them If I Could contains 17 vignettes, related and unrelated to varying degrees, that make no attempt to operate within a standard plot. They are also self-consciously intellectual in ways that Roth and Paley never would be, engaging Byron, Marx, Kafka and Dostoevsky as subjects and characters. Yet despite these highbrow references, Michaels was hardly an elitist. Though Roth was writing in the 1960s and channeled some of the era's sexual ethos, he rarely addressed the darker corners of the time. For Michaels, the harsh ramifications of America's mid-century social upheavals were perhaps his greatest inspiration. In "City Boy," Michaels probes sexual and social mores as directly as possible. The story opens with the protagonist, Phillip, shtupping his girlfriend Veronica on a fancy living-room floor. The couple is soon discovered by the girl's father, who accidentally facilitates further coitus with a misplaced foot, then chases Phillip around the room, with glass crashing, as Veronica's mother yells, "If something broke, you'll rot for a month." Michaels didn't always resort to slapstick. "Manikin," one of his most famous stories, is about gossipy college coeds, but begins with a rape and ends with a suicide. The latter was something Michaels knew about all too well. A new edition of his short novel, Sylvia, was published to coincide with the release of The Collected Stories, and it is one of Michaels's most gritty works. It is also his most personal. In it, Michaels fictionalizes the story of his tumultuous first marriage to Sylvia Bloch, which ended with her suicide. In Sylvia, Michaels is at his least experimental, but he doesn't need complicated sentence structures to evoke the exciting but tumultuous times: "Around then, Elvis Presley and Allen Ginsberg were kings of feeling, and the word love was like a proclamation with the force of kill." The heaviness and headiness of Leonard Michaels should not be a deterrent. He also wrote with humor and a Yiddish verve that could only be so riotously blasphemous because it's tethered to the sacred culture of the Old Country. Leonard Michaels should never be put on the same pedestal as Philip Roth and Grace Paley. He was unique; he deserves his own.