I Would Have Saved Them If I Could
by Leonard Michaels
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 188 pp., $7.95
A little culture can be a dangerous thing; more of it, still more so. Reading this collection of stories prompts one to wish that Leonard Michaels had never heard of alienation, sentiment of being, nihilism; his fragile talent might then have flourished in comparative innocence. As it is, these stories are crusted with the junk of fashionable culture, both the fashionable culture of today and the fashionable culture of yesterday. There is Bellovian swagger without Bellow’s rich complication; Rothian sexual assertiveness without Roth’s sense of fun; and there is Mailer, and Malamud, and Borges, and Counter-Culture, all rendered “heavy” in the sense that young people use that term. Behind the influences, references, knowingness, and bravado, one glimpses a rather sweet sensibility with a small, damaged gift for narrative and notation.
Mr. Michaels writes two kinds of stories: “American-Jewish,” flauntingly bold and inauthentic, and a Borges-like stringing together of two or three paragraph sketches, vignettes, and reflections, featuring Marx, Freud, Trotsky, Nietzsche, Byron, Hegel, Dostoevsky, and other star players. This latter group of pieces I found impossible and often incomprehensible; they strain, with painful eagerness, for gnomic profundity, fables encompassing the absurdity of existence, and philosophical gags. They are of the sort likely to be described as “wild, man.” The level of wit is suggested by Mr. Michael’s remark that Marx was “an alienated Jew assuming the voice of Hegelienated Jew.” His profundity is suggested by an anecdote about a woman who worries that people are starving while she brushes her teeth and this upsets her morally. But “being moral is a luxury, isn’t it? No, it’s asking the question. That’s why I spend my time stealing, fucking, and taking dope.” Wisdom literature is a risky genre.
The straight stories focus on urban trauma and blithe depravity. A gang of Jewish boys peeks into a rabbi’s apartment as he makes love to his delectable wife, and then one of the boys suffers the punishment of being shipped off to summer camp. A man is stroked to ejaculation by a stranger in the subway, whether male, female, or questionable is not clear and it hardly matters—it’s just handiwork. A young married couple profit financially by submitting to sexual use at a corrupt publisher’s party.
In delivering these sorry anecdotes Mr. Michaels affects a minimal method—minimal narrative, minimal characterization, minimal detail. Bang, bang, hardly, and emotional fuss, and we reach the end, like the man in the subway. What is absent from these stories—differentiated and precise responses, say, among the boys peeking at the rabbi, some firm if tacit valuation of what their conduct, indeed, their whole story, signifies—is nothing less, as I see it, than the traditional substance of literature.
That Mr. Michaels is, somewhere, sensitive to such a view of his stories is indicated by the one about the young couple at the publisher’s party, where he makes some effort at complication, provides some detail regarding the …