July 2007

Weston Cutter

fiction

The Collected Stories by Leonard Michaels

Leonard Michaels is part of that unfortunate group of authors who’s likely be considered a Writers’ Writer. I can’t remember the first author interview I read in which someone I enjoyed mentioned his work, but soon thereafter one of his Nachman stories was in the New Yorker and I felt totally hosed. If your entry into Leonard Michaels was through the Nachman stories (a whole collection of which he was working on at his death in 2003), and if you didn’t think they were that amazing, I’ve got great news: Leonard Michaels’s early work is a hundred times better than his best Nachman stuff.

Oh man he’s good. His first two collections, 1969’s Going Places and 1975’s I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, are almost disturbingly great collections -- disturbing because, of course, they fell out of print despite more than enough acclaim to secure an audience. The prose in both collections is simultaneously tough and gorgeous and also incredibly fast. It’s almost jarring to read stories that ask so much so quickly from the reader, and yet it’s also refreshing. Clearly, Michaels thinks we’re up to whatever challenges he has for us.

And the sentences this guy could make! “Dawn hadn’t shown between the slats in the blinds. Her breathing sissed in my ear. I wanted to sleep more, but needed a cigarette.” That is from “City Boy,” the hilarious, ribald and weird second story in Going Places.

Stress that ribald, actually. Not only is there quite a bit of sex in Michaels’s stories, but almost everything in the stories is colored in discomfort. That passage from “City Boy” comes less than two pages into the story, as the narrator is describing life from the floor of his girlfriend’s New York apartment where they’re both sprawled, naked, and about to be discovered by the girl’s father, at which point the discomfort ratchets up several notches.

And yet once you think you’ve got him figured out as a sort of gritty realist (even if his realism makes for some staggering beauty), Michaels dodges, throwing in experimental stuff as interesting and accomplished as something you’d see in Conjunctions. “In The Fifties,” from I Would Have Saved Them, is basically an expansive list story. The first sentences: “In the fifties I learned to drive a car. I was frequently in love. I had more friends than now.”

The Collected Stories is worth it just for having the entirety of Going Places and I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, and clearly those two collections must’ve been the impetus for the book. There are four stories drawn from his 1993 and 2000 collections, To Feel These Things and A Girl With a Monkey, a single story from Shuffle, and, to finish the collection, the seven Nachman stories. While all the stories, taken together, argue strongly for an emergent Michaels, read by more than the handful of book nerds, the first two collections are what should, hopefully, cement his legacy. It’s an astonishing book.

The Collected Stories by Leonard Michaels
Farrar Straus & Giroux
ISBN: 0374126542
416 Pages