A far cry from London SW1 is Berkeley, CA 94701. A far cry from White’s Club, or Boodle’s, or Buck’s, or Bertie Wooster’s Drones, is the association imagined by Leonard Michaels in his novel The Men’s Club. The story is of six men of early middle age and of middling station, a tax accountant, a lawyer, a college teacher, a psychotherapist, a real estate man, a doctor—or so I make them out—transplanted New York Jews most of them, so it seems, some of them already friends, some not. They gather one evening in a hideous California living room when the wife is away, and declare themselves a club. They find nothing better to do than tell boring stories about their failures with women, get drunk, devour the lavish collation prepared by the absent wife for her next day’s women’s group, fight, smash up the place with the host’s assistance, and ride off into the dawn in a pickup truck singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow.”
On the first page one sees that the book is by a very clever writer who has much talent and a pregnant idea come to term, but as a story it fails. In part this is because it seems intended as an allegory and most allegories are as dull as propaganda. Such interest as The Men’s Club has is that it is enigmatic. All is left to the reader, who must interpret this view of the war of the sexes as it is fought out on that farthest shore where, as we are so often told, the freaks of the golden land along the San Andreas fault portend the future of us all.
If one gets through the book, the story teases reflection, and so in this irritating way the author succeeds. In another way he teases us to get through because we wonder if it can possibly go on being so squalid. He gives us many signs of artistic earnestness, in counterpoints in the boring confessions, in the carefully planted running themes like the appearance and disappearance of one “Deborah Zeller,” in the all-too-realistically wandering conversations. And he saves for the end the one intelligent act of the evening or of the recollections, saves it for a woman, and then pulls the one attempt at a real joke.
The returning wife—and he has cleverly made us wait for her too—bangs her husband on the head with an iron pot. He, the psychotherapist, responds, “I feel you’re feeling anger.”
So perhaps the tedium of the characters and the story is carefully intentional. One can’t be quite sure. The reflections of the narrator, an unnamed and but dimly personified college professor, aspire to the level of a sports column—indeed, on sports, he observes of the character named Cavanaugh, organizer of the session, formerly a basketball star, “He stopped slapping Kramer’s arms, but Kramer continued touching him and looked as though he might soon pee in his pants. People love athletes. Where else these days…
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