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Life’s complications

Lynell George is a Times staff writer.

I’D never written a fan letter -- not before and not since. But it was an emergency. I was desperately seeking clarity. I’d been working in a bookstore, part time while studying for my bachelor’s degree. One slow night, I was shelving books when a title called out from the back-stock cart -- “Going Places.” I was piqued by its promise. I opened to a random page, the middle of a story, “Mildred,” and fell into its rhythms: “Water crashed, then she was shooting to the closet, jamming into heels, scrambling a blouse on her back. A light went on. She slashed her mouth with lipstick. ‘Come in, come in.’ ”

Before the end of the evening, I’d read much of “Going Places” and had sought out more by its author, Leonard Michaels. There was another collection, “I Would Have Saved Them If I Could,” and a slim novel, “The Men’s Club,” which looked like someone’s little black book. I spent the weekend poring over the stories, the novel. I couldn’t get those rhythms out of my head.

What was the music inside those stories? How was it done? It was a different way of listening, seeing and, ultimately, assembling. The stories -- some as short as three lines, others pared down to a sharp volley of dialogue -- were full of beautiful, glinting sentences, details laid on like pigment on canvas. His first sentences made you want to eavesdrop: “She didn’t like me, so I called her every day.” All of it was infused with wild, off-kilter humor and a heaping measure of pathos. Michaels described a shifting world of Talmudic scholars, battered cabbies, Lower East Side street toughs and a spinner-rack of marginal types where everything including protracted breakups and the professorial concerns of tenure became tragic slapstick. It wasn’t a world I knew, but he made me feel it.

I’m not sure exactly what I wrote him. I cringe to think about it -- 19-year-old enthusiasms fueled by 19-year-old anxieties. But Michaels answered: “Thank you for your very pleasing letter.” I was stunned. It opened a door to a long-distance mentorship that evolved into friendship. When I told this story at a memorial in Berkeley, a year after his death in May 2003, one of his relatives pulled me aside and told me: “I know why he answered: It was probably his first and last fan letter too!”

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I knew that wasn’t the truth. But I always wondered why Michaels was not better known. Despite being praised by John Hawkes, Charles Baxter, William Styron and Susan Sontag, he’s remembered mostly for the travesty of a film made from “The Men’s Club.” And yet it is his short stories that I’ve always found most resonant.

Now, in an act of reclamation, Michaels’ widow, Katharine Ogden Michaels, has put together “The Collected Stories,” which includes both “Going Places” and “I Would Have Saved Them If I Could” -- originally published in 1969 and 1975, respectively -- as well as selections from the later volumes “Shuffle” (1990), “To Feel These Things” (1993) and “A Girl With a Monkey” (2000). The book closes with a series of never-before-collected stories about an introverted Los Angeles mathematician named Nachman that Michaels was completing at the time of his death.

“He was a habitual reviser of his own writing,” Katharine Michaels writes in her editor’s note, “often creating more than one version of the same situation or story and also producing collections that juggled different narrative forms and genres.” Indeed, the stories, laid out end to end, look a bit like a busy transit map -- the evolution of a writer, all the stops along the way, including not-so-oblique hints of real life blending with fiction. For more of that, there’s also “Sylvia,” another of Michaels’ “memoirs-in-fiction,” which has been reissued in conjunction with “The Collected Stories.” It’s a harrowing retelling of his splintering first marriage to Sylvia Bloch. The two books play off one another: “Sylvia’s” seeds can be glimpsed in early stories such as “Mildred” and “Crossbones.”

What’s still most hypnotizing about Michaels’ work isn’t just the circumstances of characters coming together or the shock of their collisions; it’s also the thrumming violence that occupies a space so close to love. “We twisted up together in New York,” he writes. “Intimacy was insult; love could hate.”

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For the most part, these stories feel fresh because of Michaels’ ability to dig deep into the sticky morass of love and personal relationships -- romantic, filial, platonic -- and to highlight all the ways we connect or fail to. He evokes the territory of rivalry, jealousy and guilt, their complex transactions. He fixes the most twisty, difficult-to-pinpoint miscommunication to the page: “Beard wrote me saying he’d heard there was bad blood between us. We’d met only two or three times. As far as I knew, there was hardly anything between us. But I answered his letter, impelled by guilt, though I could imagine nothing to feel guilty about. Simply to breathe incurred responsibilities.”

Even as Michaels’ structures shifted, his preoccupying theme continued to be those connections -- or disconnections -- of human interaction. “She said ‘Hello,’ and her voice was full of welcome, but I saw she was too much in motion, already someplace else. Her eyes were pleasant, but they looked through mine as if mine weren’t eyes, just tunnels that zoomed out the back of my head,” says Phillip, one of his recurring protagonists, in “Making Changes.”

Much as Michaels can unhinge a story, he also shows how unfixed humans are, diagramming the ways indecision becomes decision and then indecision again. In the antic “City Boy,” a younger Phillip is caught in flagrante with his girlfriend on the floor of her parents’ apartment. Ejected into the New York dawn, he roams the city naked, attempting to bolster himself -- " A naked man is mysterious,” he reflects -- until his girlfriend arrives at the subway station, bearing his clothes, succor and apologies. But it’s too late: “The cigarette sizzled in the gutter. Like truth.... I was sorry, sincerely sorry, but with clothes on my back I knew certain feelings would not survive humiliation. It was so clear it was thrilling.”

Taken as a whole, the stories give us humanity at the nadir -- dissolute, self-involved, self-indulged shadows. The situations can be ugly: people propelled by insecurities, masking their inadequacies or fear by brandishing hurt. Michaels sought different ways to examine the underpinnings, the why of it, fiddling with form to evoke impact and effect. The circumstances that make up “I Would Have Saved Them If I Could” are a series of experiments -- stories in dialogue or montage; floating asides, a subconscious observation glimpsed out of the corner of one’s eye. Some of them create worlds in two quick lines, like the short, short “Ma” -- “I said, ‘Ma, do you know what happened?’ She said, ‘Oh My God!’ ” Others, like “In the Fifties,” offer striking elegies in the form of a simple list of memories: “In the Fifties, I learned to drive a car. I was frequently in love. I had more friends than now.”

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The later stories are less taut, less caffeinated but no less probing of the intimacies of interaction. They look at the moment when words fail us, or we can’t understand the words we speak. Michaels didn’t give up trying to untangle the lines that separate wives and husbands, sons and fathers -- the things “between us.” It seems fitting that his final character, Nachman, would be a mathematician who prefers to work out life’s complications as equations, sliding in different variables. So different from the off-kilter peacocks, the off-the-chart neurotics of the earlier stories, but his world bumps up against them, and he too wants to know.

Michaels stood close to the wreckage and peered at it unblinkingly. As a writer, he crafted beautiful, glinting stories, cataloging life: the hurts we dole out, the slights we inevitably receive. In “Journal,” originally published in “Shuffle,” he observes: “In the American South, it’s said of a medical student, ‘He is going to make a doctor.’ For writers there is no comparable expression. No diploma, no conclusive evidence that anything real has been made of himself or herself.”

True, and so what is the measure? It is the written equivalent of an after-image: what comes back, what haunts, how close to the truth you can get, no matter how ugly; it’s those cadences that continue to sound within you. “The feeling in the words,” Michaels writes. “Not the words.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

From ‘Murderers’ by Leonard Michaels

When my Uncle Moe dropped dead of a heart attack I became expert in the subway system. With a nickel I’d get to Queens, twist and zoom to Coney Island, twist again toward the George Washington Bridge -- beyond which was darkness. I wanted proximity to darkness, strangeness. Who doesn’t? The poor in spirit, the ignorant and frightened. My family came from Poland, then never went anyplace until they had heart attacks. The consummation of years in one neighborhood: a black Cadillac, corpse inside. We should have buried Uncle Moe where he shuffled away his life, in the kitchen or toilet, under the linoleum, near the coffeepot.

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lynell.george@latimes.com


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