Leonard Michaels is not amused.
Kirkus Reviews has called "The Men's Club," his new novel, a "subtly psychological sendup of women's-lib fiction." The Village Voice claims that it is "not really about men at all, but about women." Newsweek says it has "a distinctly feminist cast that is far more appealing than what we find in most novels written by angry women today. "And Alice Adams, who reviewed the book for the Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle; believes "it's the first feminist novel written by a man."
Angry women! Women's-lib fiction! Don't mention them to Michaels. Sitting in his Baltimore recreation room, oblivious to the surrounding strew of child-litter, the 47-year-old writer already looks like a menacing mixture of Jerzy Kosinski and Michael Sarrazin. And now he torques is features even tighter in painful bafflement at the suggestion of feminism -- or any other "ism" -- in his book. "This is not in any sense propaganda, pro or con feminism, pro or con male sensibility," he says with the obstinate word-biting cadence of a man who doubts that he will be understood. "It is, I hope, believe it or not, a description of reality."
Well, sure. But after a decade in which raised consciousness became self-consciousness, readers are looking for role-model fables or backlash polemics. So what are they to expect from a satirical novel in which seven men from different professions gather in the home of a Berkeley, Calif., psychotherapist to form a club. Not like women's clubs: "Women wanted to talk about anger, identity, politics, etc.," the narrator says. "A men's club, compared to women's groups, was play. Frivolous; virtually insulting."
It's rough play: The pot-sodden, booze-fueled evening does not so much raise consciousness as obliterate it, liberating a manic communal id. The men begin by shyly trading stories, developing twin momentums of self-revelation and pack frenzy that lead to the rape of a refrigerator ("our ice mother" -- full of food for the host's wife's club meeting the next night), to sudden violence to dog-like howling to knife-throwing to a homicidal, saucepan-wielding assault by the offended wife.
Yet for all the masculine horseplay, the 181-page book is very much about women. Just as Plato's all-male "Symposium" attempted through anecdotal dialogue to define love, so Michaels' men talk execlusively about women, define themselves in terms of women. But feminist? A mere parody? Michaels is not taking that rap. Not after two decades of precision-crafting, award-winning stories for Partisan Review, Esquire, American Review and Playboy. Not after becoming one of the nation's few dozen art-for-art's-sake writers, those who get most of the critical plaudits and almost none of the money.
This book, he says, is a serious exploration of "a particular kind of reality which has not been treated accurately or deeply: the kind of feelings that emerge only in certain circumstances among men when they feel they have a kind of permission to be at once objective and self-pitying." In American-society, Michaels says, that permission is "something they give to themselves, virtually saying to each other, 'We have agreed to understand that all of us are vulnerable, despite the fact that we're not supposed to seem that way.'"
It's "an explosive subject," says his agent, Lynn Nesbit. And in the let's-make-a-package world of modern publishing, controversy breeds success. Last week, 20th Century-Fox paid $35,000 for an option on a movie version, against a $250,000 potential buy, and Avon bought the paperback rights for an undisclosed sum. Leonard Michaels, PhD -- a "fanatical rewriter" who fine-tunes his language between recurring fits of self-doubt -- can take his ivy-tower artistry right down to the bank. So who cares if critics want to call it a parody of feminist literature, especially Marilyn French's novel, "The Women's Room"?
Michaels does. "I have never read Marilyn French or a single feminist novel," he says, shaking his thick mane of graying hair, staring down at the broken toys and matted rug in the house he is renting near Johns Hopkins, where he taught literature for one semester this spring, replacing vacationing John Barth.
In fact, he says, the club, the men and their stories are modeled on Plato's famed dialogue, but based on his own experience, and transformed by fiction ("You change some facts and you capture some truth"). "I was a member of a men's club in Berkeley [where he is a professor of literature]. We called it 'club,' not 'group,' because women's groups were so big. It was clearly modeled on what women are doing all around, and the guys went into it in that way, and didn't know what they were going to do when they met. We ended up telling our life stories."
The difference between women and men in these circumstances, Michaels says, is that men will not "offer suggestions as to how you might be able to live better, won't even maybe be supportive, as they would be in a women's group. They will jeer, they'll tease, they'll even insult, but they'll do it out of a kind of male love. Instead of decent, warm things, they'll say something cruel and deeply loving -- something men can do for one another that women don't do.
"It's like the deepest expression of allegiance. It's like saying to someone, 'I think you're a perfect fool, but if you need me to do something for you, if I have a put my life on the line for you, there's no doubt that I'd do it.' Women are just nicer. I don't mean that in a bad way. They just very quickly see what the other needs, and they try to offer it. They come forward in very sensitive, very generous ways that men are only occasionally capable of."
In the book, as in life, men do not respond directly to each other's stories. "Instead, they say, 'Well, since you've told me that, let me tell you this.' It's almost as if you were exchanging objects of great preciousness."
Despite the focus on the male psyche, the book is not for men only. Michaels concedes that "maybe I couldn't even have conceived" it without the cultural changes brought on by the women's movement, and thinks the novel should be "of extraordinary interest to women. Any woman who thinks this book is antifeminist or misogynistic is stupid."
There have been several: "I'll tell you what got to some of them particularly," Michaels says. "It was that [the characters] ate the food in the refrigerator!" A sudden conspiratorial cackle splits his habitual frown. "They think that is outrage ous! They take it personally !" Another sore spot, he says, is a story told by one of the characters -- a 6-foot-9-inch former professional basketball player -- about trying to make love to his wife while she's asleep, hoping that he won't wake her up. "That drives them up the wall," Michaels says, laughing again.
He does not laugh easily, and he seems most at ease with the thick-browed glower and lectern gestures of the practiced pedagogue, only occasionally cracking the deep creases in his face with a smile. As he begins a sentence, stops, rephrases, it and then refines it yet again, his accent sometimes lapses into the nasal vowels of his native Manhattan.
The son of a barber and his wife, both immigrant Polish Jews, he grew up in a housing project on the Lower East Side. "I spoke only Yiddish until I was about 5 or 6 years old," he says, and was introduced to the glories of English prose when "some salesman came along" and sold his mother a complete set of Dickens. "If you can imagine a little boy 6 or 7 years old, listening to his mother, who can hardly speak English, reading Dickens hour after hour in the most extraordinary accent, it might help to account for my peculiar ear."
He went to the High School of Music and Art, hoping to be a painter ("even today I'd much rather be a painter") and then went to New York University, as a pre-med student. "I would have gone right into literary studies, but I didn't feel as if I had the right , in some way. After I'd read a little bit of T.S. Eliot, I virtually felt excluded because of his idea of what The Tradition is. I could hear in the room -- me personally -- since I came from these immigrants."
Then Michaels met the celebrated literary critic Austin Warren, who was teaching at NYU, and became his protege. "He said, without saying it, 'You're all right.' In 1953, I followed him to the University of Michigan," where Michaels got his doctorate in 1967. In 1969, Michaels took a position at Berkeley and has remained there since. Along the way, he was married and divorced twice, taught at Patterson State College in New Jersey and the University of California at Davis, and developed a growing reputation as a writer.
"It had always been in the back of my mind, but I didn't start until I was about 27. What gave me the confidence was the fact that I had a lot of friends and they laughed at my jokes and liked my stories. I once tried psychotherapy and I lasted only three sessions because the therapist seemed to be enjoying it so much that it was obvious that it wasn't going to do me any good at all."
He was an instant success: In 1962, Playboy bought the first story he sent them for $3,000. He now winces at the memory of "The Sound of Hirsh," which he says was "excessive in every conceivable way -- I'm trying to pretend it never happened." Too sophomoric for the self-image of a man who won a National Book Award nomination for his first collection of stories ("Going Places," 1969) and critical accolades for his second ("I Would Have Saved Them If I Could," 1975). "Sometimes," he says, "I'm perfectly satisfied with a story, and then it gets into print and I could die of shame. I've had stories accepted by high-paying magazines and called them back. I'll put a story in the mail, say to Esquire, and three hours later I'm on the phone to the editor," telling him to send it back unopened
In Michaels' first two books, New York plays a prominent part, "a powerful metaphor for all of life." Yet the city saddens him now, and he is content to live "a little bit in exile" on the outskirts of Berkeley, where he can see the Golden Gate Bridge from the house he shares with his third wife, Brenda, 30, and his children -- Ethan, 15, Jesse, 12, and Louisa, 22 months. Even here in the academic suburbs of Baltimore, he looks the part of a bicoastal hybrid: the Washington-Square austerity of tweedy gray jacket and baggy khakis mellowed by a sport shirt open to the third button.
Still, he had to put four "East Coast types" into the novel just to get enough tension in the characters. And he says, "I miss the kind of conversation you can really only get in New York. There are more words per sentence. I'm often shocked when I phone New York to discover that the secretary who answers at the other end is talking faster and thinking faster than I am. Not only that: Her ideas are more complex."
Many of those calls go to Lynn Nesbit at International Creative Management, who handled the various offers for the movie, play and musical rights to the Farrar, Straus & Giroux hardcover. Michaels is quietly astonished by all the sudden interest, by the possibility of major money. He's thought about it before: "It becomes a subject even of writers who take themselves very seriously." But he says he is not eager to become a mass-market success. He is proud that in "The Men's Club" "I didn't write what would please 10 million people. I didn't make it fatter because it would sell better -- I didn't write it for the weight."
Moreover, he says he has no desire to join the pecuniary pantheon of best-selling novelists. Many of them, he believes, are pathetic cases: "I feel sorry for them. I know that in their hearts they think they're good writers. And I know they're writing as well as they can. And I know they stink."
While admitting that "it's guys like that who have always made life possible for guys like me, keeping some publishing house afloat with their big books," he feels that "their work is horrible and beneath contempt. The sorts of values that constitute serious literary achievement have been very difficult to attain and preserve," he says, and too many best-selling novelists "debase our capacity to know good from bad" and "train people to read with all sort of expectations that the best literature can never fulfill." r
Michaels' own criteria for success may seem bewilderingly pedestrian. The real payoff, he says, is that universities invite him to appear their campuses: "Alaska, Hawaii, Poland, all over the United States!" he says, the rare smile returning. "I taught at the University of Alabama!" And he is looking forward to a guest lecture in Lincoln, Neb., soon.
Drab faculty rooms in Birmingham, Ala., and Lincoln, Neb.? These are the sweet rewards for thousands of hours of suffering and self-doubt? "You can't buy that stuff," Michaels says. "When a school invites me, they're really inviting me ." Take that , T.S. Eliot! "To know that an important poet has read your book and thinks you really can write English -- man, that's exhilarating."