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Obituaries

Leonard Michaels, 70; Short-Story Writer, Novelist, Professor

May 13, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Leonard Michaels, a writer who published a small but critically praised body of work, including such collections of short stories as "Going Places" and "I Would Have Saved Them If I Could" and the provocative novel and motion picture "The Men's Club," has died. He was 70.

Michaels died Saturday at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley of complications from lymphoma, said his daughter, Louisa.

Until April, when he began suffering stomach problems and returned to Berkeley for treatment, he had been living in Italy with his fourth wife, Katharine Ogden Michaels.

A master of balancing humor and horror, and weaving the chaos of mid-20th century rebellion into his well-crafted short stories, Michaels was better known to readers of literary journals than to the mass market.

Yet Larry McMurtry, a prolific and best-selling novelist, has called Michaels "one of the strongest and most arresting prose talents of his generation."

Michaels was perhaps best known to general audiences for his first novel, "The Men's Club," published in 1981, which was nominated for best novel of the year by the National Book Critics Circle and for the National Book Award.

The intense little book and film involve seven professional men meeting in the home of one, a psychologist who has slept with 622 women by age 38, to bare their sexual histories. They drink, shout, fight, throw knives at the woodwork and raid a refrigerator stocked for a women's encounter group. The host's wife returns to find her home destroyed and the food devoured, hits her husband in the head with a frying pan and sends the "club" fleeing into the night.

Michaels also wrote the screenplay for the film version in 1986, starring Roy Scheider, Harvey Keitel, Frank Langella, Treat Williams, Richard Jordan, Craig Wasson and David Dukes as the seven members of the male encounter group.

Explaining why he was publishing his first novel at 47, Michaels told The Times in 1981: "I had an idea of myself as a very serious artist. I felt the short story was more profound and more serious than the novel was -- and therefore more interesting. When you write a short story you're permitted no mistakes. It has a kind of pure, magical form. A novel is a sloppier thing. Yet with this book the subject demanded a novel and not a short story."

Michaels changed the ending for the movie, sending the escapees to a brothel instead of breakfast, which caused some critics to accuse filmmakers of "porno" effects.

The novel found more success than the film, although a Times movie reviewer praised Michaels' "stinging, smart, abrasive dialogue" and the "fine cast."

David Evanier evaluated "The Men's Club" for the National Review, writing that, "on its own terms it is a considerable novel. Nothing in Michaels' two previous books of short stories ... prepared me for the relentlessly dark and brilliant strength of these pages. Here is a middle-aged predatory Berkeley inferno of loss and chaos."

The author himself was surprised at the debate the novel sparked in the literary community about whether the book was feminist or misogynist. He claimed it was neither for or against feminism, but merely reflected reality.

The story was based on Michaels' own experience with such a male encounter group in Berkeley in 1975 during his long tenure as a professor of English at UC Berkeley.

"The group I belonged to, the one that gave me the idea for this book would never have existed without the women's movement," he told The Times in 1981. "It was very much in response to our consciousness of women's groups."

Michaels' first book of short stories, "Going Places," was nominated for the National Book Award in 1969, and his second, "I Would Have Saved Them If I Could" in 1975, earned universal praise.

David Reid wrote for Threepenny Review: "The hallmarks of these stories are an amazing rapidity of image, incident and idea, and a deftness of rhythm and phrasing that, quite simply, confirm, sentence by sentence, his status as one of the most original, intelligent, and stylistically gifted writers of his generation."

The author co-edited three well-received collections of essays: "The State of the Language" in 1980 and another of the same title in 1990, and "West of the West: Imagining California" in 1989.

He also wrote the 1990 book "Shuffle," criticized for its noncohesive organization but praised for the writing; the 1992 novel "Sylvia," a fictional memoir based on his first marriage to a woman who committed suicide; and the whimsical 1995 "A Cat" about, well, cats.

Later collections included "Time Out of Mind" in 1999, from his diary entries over 35 years, and "A Girl With a Monkey," short stories, in 2000.

His individual short stories also were printed in such publications as the New Yorker and Threepenny Review.

Michaels was born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Polish immigrant parents and spoke only Yiddish until he was about 5 or 6.

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