What I’m Going to Do, I Think
A Nest of Ninnies
Leonard Michaels is a gut-writer. The paradigm of his fiction is simple: two people, locked in violence. The stories are set in “the city’s dark going places,” New York for instance, but the setting is not crucial, any city will answer. The people themselves hardly matter, except as conductors of violence; they are good for intensity and shock, nothing else. We are not required to care for them, but rather to be afflicted by the venom they secrete. The characters come in pairs, couples, Phillip and Veronica, Sarah Nilsin and Myron Bronsky, Melanie and Harry, Phillip and Cecily, Miller and Mildred. Their violence is the kind that couples engender: birth and copulation and then death. Sometimes the hero has a twin, as Phillip has his secret sharer, Henry; and then the girl, the stuttering Marjorie, provides the occasion, the incitement. Of Henry, Phillip says:
A nose, eyes, a curious mouth, a face, my own felt face behind my eyes, an aspect of my mind, a habit of my thought—my friend, Henry.
But when the two people remain two, the reader feels that if the violence were to be stilled, as by divine intervention, the characters would cease to exist. Beyond the violence, they are nothing. So they tend to collapse, at any moment, into an undifferentiated medium, a vortex of feeling. The words on the page barely differentiate one mode of violence from another. Mechanically, the stories might be reduced to anecdotes, if the exacerbation were omitted, but the anecdotes count for less than the exacerbation, the grip of claw. In “Going Places” the story concerns Beckman, a taxi-driver, mugged. Out of hospital, he finds a job as assistant to a paint contractor. So much for the facts; but plot does not define the events within, the grinding of moment upon moment, until the last terror. In “Crossbones” Myron and Sarah dance various figures in their apartment until, finally, with the bones crossed, the bodies are consumed.
To do so much with words, Mr. Michaels drives his language hard. He writes in a high rush, the sentences tormenting each other, like the couples, as if nothing short of annihilation could suffice, the feeling being what it is. In several stories I was reminded of John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig, an essay in modern Gothic which perhaps marked for Mr. Michaels the possibilities of the genre. But he is more than a promising pupil. Going Places contains thirteen short stories; four or five of them are impeccable. The title story, then “Sticks and Stones,” “The Deal,” “Intimations,” and “Finn” are the high places, but Mr. Michaels is a powerful writer even when his story wavers. When the balance fails and the story goes awry, there is an impression of inserted horror: the rhetoric strains beyond itself, and the story, self-regarding in its violence, becomes a Gothic conceit. The weaker stories die of their own excess: often because nothing is allowed to rebuke the fiction, no sense of fact …