Sad But True

During his life, Bay Area author Leonard Michaels never got his due. In death, he just might.

I went to a friend's going-away party in Oakland last month where there was a Moonwalk, or "bouncy castle," in the California parlance. It was full of naked people chanting, "Naked in the cas-tle! Naked in the cas-tle!" I kept my clothes on. Parties with naked people bum me out, what can I say? Call me old-fashioned. My friend Peter spotted me standing by myself and ambled over, flush with wine.

"Peter, man, everything sucks," I said. "I don't have a good book to write about this month."

"Dude," he said, eyes widening. "Leonard Michaels."

He learned about Leonard Michaels when his friend Andrew approached him at a party a few months prior and said, "Dude. Leonard Michaels." If you fall into the sadly ignorant category of people that Peter and I once did, I am here to say to you today, "Dude. Leonard Michaels."

Michaels, who died in 2003 at the age of 70, never really got his due when he was alive. He authored seven books in 30 years, picking up fancy grants and awards for his short stories, novels, and essays. Despite accolades from top literati like Susan Sontag and having his book, The Men's Club, turned into a movie, he remained a critical darling without a proper public following. Perhaps tellingly, his Wikipedia entry is shorter than the one dedicated to his son Jesse, leader of the Berkeley ska band Operation Ivy.

Four years after his death, it seems he's finally poised to get the audience he deserved. Michaels was long published by the noble but tiny local Mercury House, but beginning this month, publishing giant Farrar, Strauss and Giroux will release splashy new editions of all his works, starting with his Collected Stories — a release that is frankly startling in its talent, energy, sensitivity, and savagery.

"I'd never write about being happy," Michaels wrote in his journals, published posthumously. "It's of no interest as a dramatic subject. Being sad feels personal, even unique." His stories are commiserations between writer, reader, and fictional misfit, though there is precious little sympathy exchanged between the criminals, sad lovers, malaise-ridden urbanites, and lost souls who grapple with each other in these works. The collection is organized chronologically, and it is fascinating to watch Michaels, a New York City native and career English professor at UC Berkeley, devise and conquer new forms and tones as he ages and switches coasts. He starts young and jittery, careening tales of Jewish immigrant communities and ennui'd young professionals in '60s and '70s New York, and ends with the Nachman Stories, a series of unhurried, if creepy, tales about an aging solitary California academic.

The social havoc and sheer speed of the writing in Michaels' first two collections, Going Places ('69) and I Would Have Saved Them If I Could ('75) makes each addictive reading. Narratives dart along like a predatory seabird — sentences skimming fast and low, feeding on squirming little things pulled up from the deep, forgetting them and rushing on towards a horizon that doesn't move. Take "Eating Out," from the 1975 collection. The 12-page story is broken into 24 short fragments. It's a jumpy little memoir of a confused young man, who defines his life through his fixations: basketball, sex, his mother, and the gay hustler who lives upstairs from him. Michaels has a sharp ear for dark irony — the narrator begins an affair with his neighbor, a bored, melodramatic beauty who gets sick of living a "bad metaphor":

Finally, she smacked a Coke bottle on the rim of the bathtub, mutilated her wrist, then phoned the cops. So clumsy, yet her dinner parties were splendid, prepared at unbelievable speed. She hated to cook. Chewing gum, cigarettes, candy, drugs, alcohol, and taxicabs took her from Monday to Friday. The ambulance attendant — big ironical black man in baggy white trousers — flipped open the medicine cabinet and yelled 'See those barbiturates. You didn't have to make a mess.' He dragged her out of the tub by the hair, naked, bleeding. She considered all that impressive.

For all the swift tumult of Michaels' early writing, there's never a sense that his characters or scenes are tumbling toward anything. Tragedy — violence and adultery are his preferred woes — is just a meaningless fact to be acknowledged and then coexisted with, like a stain in the carpet or an earring you lost. His middle period, represented here with selections from 1990's Shuffle and 1993's To Feel These Things, is fraught with the same dull desperations as the early stories, although now Michaels' stumblers and sufferers are more often the middle-class, well-educated Bay Area species of loser. There's a genteel sheen to these savages. In "Journal," a man finds he's losing his female best friend to her new boyfriend:

I said, 'What's he like?' She said he is some kind of psychotherapist, divorced, lives in Mill Valley. His former wife is Korean, a fashion model. She made him install a plate glass window in their living room so birds would fly into it and break their necks. She had them stuffed.

'Oh, I know the guy,' I said. "Women find him attractive.'

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