Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Unstuck in the '60s : SYLVIA, By Leonard Michaels Illustrated by Sylvia Bloch (Mercury House: $10 , paper; 128 pp.)

October 11, 1992|Tom Clark | Clark is the author of "Jack Kerouac" (Paragon House)

The current commercial vogue in '60s nostalgia is predictably paralleled by a reactionary backlash, to which Leonard Michael's "Sylvia" offers a sharp, laconic text.

In styling his "fictional memoir," Michaels seems to be trying to touch a fact-based, occasionally journalistic reminiscence with the novelist's magic wand--a curious stroke considering that Michaels makes no bones about the verisimilitude of his tale to an ill-starred personal relationshipconducted in the turbid hipster depths of 1960s Greenwich Village. This brief, sad story (advertised in the publicity copy as a rewrite of an autobiographical memoir published in Michaels' 1990 collection "Shuffle"), delivered in a detached, dispassionate and spare first-person recounting, has a palpable ring of truth. Indeed, that's the best thing about it.

It is 1960 at the outset. The narrator, a 27-year-old grad-school dropout and would-be writer, son of New York Jewish middle-class parents, has just returned home from Berkeley. He is confused about things, doesn't know what he wants to do with his life. But he is a good observer, and through his eyes--that is, out of author Michaels' memory and out of his old journals--we get a good look at the two principal characters of this book.

The heroine is Sylvia, a bright, attractive, enigmatic, unpredictable, insecure and ominously violence-prone 19-year-old classics student with whom, after a quick tryst, the narrator moves in. She maintains, in typically sloppy beatnik fashion, a squalid, roach-overrun sixth-floor walk-up on MacDougal Street. There, amid clouds of burning incense, hash smoke and roach killer, they begin a painful love affair that drags them through the next four years. Michaels' coolly distant reportorial technique is at its best in following this duel of self-destructive drives and weaknesses through all its psychological nuances, tensions and dynamics on the road to eventual disintegration.

The psychopathology behind the personal disaster that resolves Michaels' story is inferentially attributed at least in part to the historical epoch. More than just period backdrop, the '60s counterculture landscape--with representative icons like Jack Kerouac, Lenny Bruce and Allen Ginsberg stepping forward for cameo appearances, and well-known landmarks like the Five Spot, Cafe Figaro and Village Vanguard frequently heaving into view--becomes a major element in the action. And not always a positive one. It is the moral chaos and social confusion of the '60s, Michaels implies, that is ultimately responsible for the individual pathos of a wasted life. In a time when popular psychologists like R. D. Laing "(sing) praises to the condition of being nuts," Diane Arbus photographs freaks, Kerouac and Bruce blow their minds and rave in public, and "people (exceed) themselves . . . or the self" as a regular way of life, small wonder that things come out badly for Sylvia. Too much sex, drugs and freedom, working on her vulnerable, sensitive, dislocated nature, lead, by an awful inevitability, to tragedy.

"Sylvia" does have an interesting quality of fable about it, oddly given away by the very impartiality of its tone. "My life, after all, wasn't a story," the narrator comments after an unsuccessful visit to a shrink. "It was just moments, what happens from day to day, and it didn't mean anything, and there was no moral." But the judgment his younger self eschewed is not abdicated by the more mature Michaels, whose sketching of the aimless but intense relationship of two young people adrift in a world in which "there were really no large meanings, only cries of the phenomena" shows such a world to be, above all else, dangerous.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|