June 25, 2009

Leonard Michaels's THE MEN'S CLUB

Among the other books that came out when I unpacked my boxes were several by Leonard Michaels, including his only novel, The Men's Club. A recent essay in Tin House had attempted a rehabilitation of the book, which, God knows, it needs. It suffered a terrible fate, intimately connected to the kind of writer Michaels was and, in another way, to the kind of writer he imagined he was, and was not. For the novel made it, albeit very briefly, to the bestseller list. A polished short novel, shapely--shaped exactly like a bomb in fact--it was never meant to be on a best seller list and when it blew up, it was in Michaels's face.

I met Leonard Michaels when I was in a writing workshop at Berkeley. He was running the workshop, which he happily told us was the “best” of the semi-amateur programs around the country. It was some lineup: Robert Stone, Thomas McGuane, Grace Paley, and Elizabeth Hardwick. Each morning Michaels gave a talk and read something by a student, which he ripped to pieces in the style for which he was famous. He maintained that if it was possible to find something wrong with a piece, he should find it, and that by tearing at student writing in this way he was teaching the young writer how to write work that was invulnerable. I think he was more destructive than that, but a thick hide, top grain, thoroughly cured, never hurt a writer. He gave me advice that was for a long time the only decent advice I ever had from another writer. “You have to protect yourself.” This is the wisdom of the street kid, an experience of growing up that makes you craven and, if you don’t watch out, a bully. Michaels was both. And, of course, very bright. But also cruel. He was, though of course he didn't realize it--no one ever does--at the height of his career.

Michaels took no prisoners; if he didn't know something (in my piece I made a reference to matter as energy that he didn't understand) he poured scorn on it. He figured, correctly, that if he didn’t do it someone else would; whether the criticism was ignorant or off base was irrelevant because you were putting your work out in front of an audience of idiots that wanted nothing more than an excuse to quit reading before reaching page four. Michaels usually didn’t get past the first paragraph. He was not really nasty, but he knew less than he believed he did. There is only one good kind of criticism for a writer, which is whatever helps you do what you were trying to do in a way that makes it succeed for readers. Such criticism is rare because it demands empathy beyond what you yourself possess and an ability to push you to what you were attempting to do, but not yet doing. And this comes along hardly ever. Michaels didn’t know about it. He tore away at his own work with the same vicious ferocity, with the result that he made a style out of his street kid experience, but some things about himself he couldn’t see, just like everyone else. His memoir of his first marriage, for example, fails due to his own blindness about how impossible he was.

The Men’s Club had just been published in something close to its entirety in Esquire, and with inestimable vanity he read the whole 150 pages to us at one of the evening readings. I could hardly bear to sit through it, not only because it was long but because he clearly had no idea how angry it would make women. It had all the weaknesses of his pose of hipness, which was purely defensive and uncool. He was hip without being any kind of hipster.

But hearing it aloud in 1980, I thought The Men’s Club was sexist. It doesn't embrace the bad side of masculinity, but just one thing to note--it is a collection of men's stories and most of them have hit or kicked or otherwise physically abused a woman they love. No woman was going to like this book. I knew he'd committed literary suicide.

And it's exactly what happened to him, a career move of appalling misjudgment, and this was the guy who advised me: "You have to protect yourself." He led with his chin. First, the book didn’t really sell. It made the best seller lists but it never climbed them. The publisher had planned, as publishers did in those days, to break him out with it, out of the cage of "literary" fiction into "commercial" fiction, and Michaels wanted it. He understood part of what was up. The concept of “midlist author”—author, not writer—was new but he understood that if he didn't escape that category he was doomed to publish with independent presses or not at all. He was fixed for life in his great job at Berkeley where he was respected by writer types and academics alike, and he was a famous teacher with successful students. But he had a character flaw that is very dangerous for any artist--I myself have had to get over it. Envy. He felt he deserved greater recognition, which he equated, mistakenly in his case, with commercial success. Publishing had changed--he knew this, because this whole story is post-Garp, which founded the new business model. A writer was supposed to write a couple of critically esteemed books that didn’t sell too well but caught the eye of a dynamic editor who then developed the writer, man or woman, pulling a commercially successful “breakthrough” book out of him or her. This was the strategy with which Richard Ford succeeded. With The Men’s Club, Lenny thought he'd written his breakthrough book. His publisher thought so, too. How could they have so misjudged the subject matter, the timing, the audience? How could they have been so out of touch with the anger of women in America? in publishing? The second thing was, after such a failure it’s hard to have a further literary career. All fiction writers whose books sell fewer and fewer copies eventually find themselves publishing nothing more. Those succeed who get out of the midlist category and write something that can be pushed commercially and, it is to be hoped, to an ever-growing audience of loyal fans. But Lenny's failure was like the stock market, and marked by the same grandiosity and delusion.

I ran into Lenny again a couple of years later at Skidmore College. He remembered me from Berkeley and we just acted like we were friends, which I think made him feel more at ease. I liked the guy. I saw his weaknesses and his intelligence and I respected his first two collections of stories. And I enjoyed talking to him. His political views were close to mine.

Lenny took a manuscript down to New York to his publisher, Farrar, Straus, to deliver it. After he came back from New York, all the wind had been taken out of his sails. He was just crushed. "I had a best-seller," he said. (Not quite the truth, notice.) "They didn't even want to look at my new stuff." He'd gone down to New York in the reasonable belief that he would just walk into the offices of his publisher and be welcomed as the great writer he was, the real savior of Jewish American literature, unlike that phony Philip Roth. (Whom they also published.) He went down there thinking he was delivering his new manuscript and they said, "We don't want any."

I don't know if it broke him--I didn't see him again--but there is a story in his collected stories that he should never have published and that he had to take to Zzyzzyva, the nice mag that publishes only West Coast writers. It reads like a revised treatment for an episode of Miami Vice. It got into the Best American Short Stories, but it is an embarrassing story: he presents his narrator, too obviously himself, as a relative of Meyer Lansky and it does nothing but get worse. Lenny probably thought he could get away with it because Isaac Babel, his hero, could write about gangsters. Babel's story, "Sunset," is the most disturbingly violent story I've ever read. It is not an episode of Miami Vice. It is the work of a fucking Martian. (Of course, this quality ultimately got Babel shot, so there you go.)

And when I saw Lenny after his return from New York, he knew what had hit him, and the reason he was so candid was that he was still in shock. If he'd meant to protect himself, he should never have told anyone that Farrar, Straus had refused to look at his new book. He should have gone home, picked up the phone, and called every writer and agent he knew who had any power in NY, found himself a new agent with power like Amanda Urban's, and picked up the pieces. I don't think he did that because Sylvia, the memoir, was published by some independent publisher you never heard of, and then again in revised form, and finally he published his entertaining but slight Nachman stories in the New Yorker and Partisan Review. He should always have been published in the Partisan Review but back in 1962. It is said that he mellowed in these late stories. They are charming, but light as styrofoam.

I don't know whether this is a story of injustice—it is a story of failure, though not of artistic failure. Career failure. Failure to survive as an artist, to survive in the marketplace. What seems unjust to me is that Farrar, Straus is now republishing everything and tooting the horn like he's their great writer, when they fucked him over in the worst way a publisher can fuck a writer over. What difference does it make: now that he’s dead, his complete works have been republished and will therefore be around as long as books are around or at least until the libraries deaccess their copies because they haven't been checked out recentlly. But to me it is much worse that he died so young. He could have done much more. He was living in Tuscany. He died of cancer. Maybe if he’d been in the U.S. he’d have gotten better medical treatment. Institutions, except Berkeley, didn’t serve him well.

Lenny was--he knew this, of course--the last heir of the Yiddish literary tradition, and the first to write in English rather than be translated into English. He didn’t learn to speak English until he started school, so Yiddish was his first language. His writing is heavily inflected with Yiddish, though not colorful Yiddish expressions, again unlike Philip Roth. He wrote in a kind of broken but powerful syntax that stripped away a lot of standard grammar but managed to be a consciously artistic style, a very developed and refined style that embraced crudeness of all kinds but was nevertheless thoroughly artful. He was not Flannery O'Connor, he was certainly not Babel, and his attempts at Babel-type wild similes always failed--as would anyone's, that was where Babel was crazy and beyond compare. But Lenny might have reminded himself that Stalin's henchmen executed Babel as an enemy of the people because he'd been hanging around with the Cheka and planned to write about them. The truth about them. That, surely, was a death sentence, another literary suicide, because the Cheka were the self-appointed agents of ideological purity in the Soviet Union. My suspicion is that Babel approved of the Chekists, but made the mistake of thinking they would approve of him, and as a result he found himself in the Lyubyanka one day, and no one got Stalin on the phone, and some ultimate arbiter of reality put a pistol to Babel's temple and blew his brains out. I admire Lenny, too, for his peculiar integrity and truth: in that, at any rate, he resembled Babel. But after The Men's Club his career was over.

Now that I’ve reread it I understand that The Men's Club (almost thirty years later) is on the nail, over and over and over; mostly written as dialogue where all the characters are distinctive, and it could probably be turned into a good play. It isn't funny at all, but it's very sharp and in that way comic. (Did he really say that? Funny that way.) But then the reckoning at the end ruins it. It’s an inversion of the Odyssey, which might have looked like a good idea but goes wrong in the working out. Imagine writing about the suitors instead of Odysseus, imagine Penelope getting revenge instead of Odysseus clearing the decks with his bow and arrow. But it doesn’t work. If it could be turned into a good play, then maybe a movie. The movie made of it is famously bad and a total box-office flop. I haven’t seen it. Michaels wrote the script. If the problem of the end could be solved, something good could be made of it.

However, I didn't explain the other part of his original failure, the failure of the book; Michaels thought he was in good with feminists, he had a lot of very attractive intellectual women friends in their early forties. He probably didn't expect to get shot down for what he did, which was unveil some of the dirty little secrets about how a lot of men are. But he got killed by woman reviewers. He was, not to put too fine a point on it, a little snitch. Neither sex really wants to know the secrets of the other, truth to tell, and in fact I don't want to know the secrets of either sex myself, in a way. But my point now is that, reading it over the last couple of days I think--wow, it's kind of incredible that this was offensive to feminists. Maybe he was one-upping them. Mostly, it’s a good book. It is a deadly book but it was aimed wrong.

No comments:

Post a Comment