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 do they see such mythic drama? Images of unimpeachable excellence. I was infected by Kramer’s enthusiasm, a bit giddy now at the sight of Cavanaugh.” The narrator also aspires sometimes, although usually his style is suitably plain and colloquial, to the colorful or odd writing of sports columns or little magazines. “As if to forbid himself another word, [Terry] shook his head. Round and bald. Sandy tufts of hair beside the ears, like baby feathers. His eyes were hazel. His nose was a thick pull.” A thick pull—something to pull at? Something pulled out? But knowingly colorful, and odd.
Is the dullness of the narrator intended to work as a kind of dramatic irony, as when an author gives us a story through a child’s eyes and we the readers, looking over the child’s head, see more than the child does, and so in that way participate in the tale? Are we supposed to like the dull narrator as a decent fool in the midst of vicious idiots, the way we like poor innocent Paul Pennyfeather or Bertie Wooster? But then our professor ought not to have said, as Leonard Michaels makes him say of the wife come home at last, “The way her blouse continued trembling also affected my sympathies, making pity and sadism masturbate each other….”
And, having flashed at us this sordid tableau in the cabinet of his mind, with its assumption that we share with him both an interest in and an understanding of things that in a more polite world—or in a world of people as dimwitted as those in the club—would remain behind a closed door, might he not offer us other sights of the deeper couplings that may be taking place behind the dull conversation and boring events of the club meeting? No. After the host has been bonked and has made his dumb psychologist’s observation, the professor makes his own. “He was, obviously, trying to evoke her deepest motives.” The author is showing us that the narrator is as dull as the other fellows and not a bit nicer. Why?
Maybe the author wants us to suppose that he and his readers must be more intelligent and, I hope, better people than these aimlessly lascivious dwellers in CA, but he gives us no Jeeves to be steady and sensible for us. Nor does the author himself speak in the prose, only the professor. Or the author wants us to believe that neither he the author nor we the readers nor anyone at all in the wide world can be any brighter or better than these sad chaps in Berkeley.
Such are the real puzzles of the book and not, I think, the question of who is winning or who ought to win the guerrilla war of the sexes, or how it might end. The one thing we learn is that in Leonard Michaels’s view both sides are exhausted by the battle and without reserves or hope of relief. For contrast, which the author leaves us entirely to supply and doubtless for his purpose rightly so, we need only to glance back for a moment to London, so far from Berkeley, to St. James’s Street, to Clubland.
This is still essentially a male district, laid out for the service, well-being and pleasure of the English gentleman. Here, if nowhere else, you must realize that the embodiment, if not the spirit, of the English upper-class male still persists. Here he can buy, bespoke, his hats, his shirts, his riding-boots; his cigars, wine and spirits, his English eighteenth-century old masters; snuff boxes, silver, even, still, his swords. The taste catered for is that of the connoisseur, the bon-vivant, of traditional background and with a house in the country…. Here he is still to be seen, dusted, darkly tailored, wearing the delicate, almost imperceptible shadow of his perfect shave as a plum wears its bloom; pinkish in the face, with the purpling of club lunches beginning (if he’s still young) to mantle the little veins on the cheekbones; a crisp zest in his tie, his cuffs showing a half to an inch of virgin linen; the clean fall of his trousers postulates clean limbs beneath. And on his arm, on his head, the insignia: the black umbrella furled tight as a bud; the matt black carapace of the bowler hat.*
Like the poor devils in Leonard Michaels’s novel, these gents had the purpose of getting away from the women. And did they not do themselves well. Surely never has a ruling class so handsomely provided refuge for itself. Their memberships inherited like their speech, like the custom of their tailors who produce their regalia, both voice and costume inimitable and instantly recognizable, the despair of the civilized world and the terror of the lesser breeds—Clubland!
How hard for Michaels’s men to begin from scratch, improvising, forming their disorderly club with no century-old rules within rules: even supposing one might presume himself qualified for nomination, there is the dread blackball; and then internal: at this table members only, or on this floor; no papers at table; backgammon only; or no hazard, only cards. Such mysteries require not too much exaggeration to become great farce, as in Waugh:
There is a tradition behind the Bollinger; it numbers reigning kings among its past members. At the last dinner, three years ago, a fox had been brought in in a cage and stoned to death with champagne bottles. What an evening that had been! This was the first meeting since then, and from all over Europe old members rallied for the occasion. For two days they had been pouring into Oxford: epileptic royalty from the villas of exile; uncouth peers from crumbling country seats; smooth young men of uncertain tastes from embassies and legations; illiterate lairds from wet granite hovels in the Highlands; ambitious young barristers and Conservative candidates torn from the London season and the indelicate advances of debutantes; all that was most sonorous of name and title was there for the bingo.
“Men’s clubs…. Maybe men played more than women,” reflects our Berkeley professor.
So it is not Leonard Michaels’s fault if he cannot be as funny as Waugh (who could?) or does not care to; for how to be funny about nothing, about the end of the line, men with no games, no rules, no castes, no pasts, no futures—poor unaccommodated males, in saggy polyester, in California, guzzling the women’s zinfandel! I take it this is what Michaels means. There was some courage in being patiently dull.
Dull indeed is this meeting. The host Kramer asks, “What is the purpose of this club?” To make women cry, thinks the narrator, and then says, “I suggest each of us tell the story of his life.” They do, in fragments, and if these are fair representations of the lives of men in that place, they cannot be lives much worth living. The host drags out a footlocker stuffed with all the documents of his time in this vale of tears, navy discharge, high-school diploma, spelling exams from the third grade, and photographs of the 622 women he has had. They all look alike. He seems to have cared for none of them. His wife understands.
The member named Berliner makes his confession. He too has an understanding with his wife. But in none of his encounters does he feel anything, except just once. Swapping mates, he hears his wife moan with pleasure. This causes him to feel something. “It was horrible, man. I lost my erection.” The athlete Cavanaugh tells of picking up a woman in a grocery store. He wants to see her again but forgets where she lives, and so he never does see her again. A man named Paul tells of picking up a woman at a party when his wife is away at her father’s funeral. In the woman’s old Buick they couple uncomfortably. Then she wants to be taken to dinner. “I was sitting there with my pants around my ankles. My dick looks crushed. Like somebody stepped on it.” The next day he goes to her house. Her man answers the door. He has no nose and no chin and is wearing an apron. He says, “You must be Paul.” Paul runs. The other stories are much the same.
Such is the entertainment on this night out, enlivened at last by their drunken brawl and the wife’s return. This is a great club, they agree as they leave.
To his credit, Leonard Michaels has given up here most of the excesses of fevered cruelty, of exhibitionism, that with his rock-and-roll style impressed a number of literary intellectuals in his two books of short stories, Going Places (1969), and I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (1975). The Men’s Club is sober in intention; many of the short stories struck me as the opposite of that, clever and gloating about unrelievedly ugly people. They might well inspire further reflections, though, of another kind than those inspired by The Men’s Club: how so many literary intellectuals express fondness for frivolous sadism. At some periods, educated people seem to develop these tastes. The University Wits of Elizabethan England did this.
When taxed with the proposition that there were in the real world no people anything like the so grand and exquisite characters of his novels, Henry James replied that if such people did not exist, they should. If people like those of Leonard Michael’s really exist, I am tempted, at the risk of sounding cruel myself, to suggest they shouldn’t be much noticed. And since we are at it, can we ask not what do women want, but what do men need?
July 16, 1981