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Life's complications

The Collected Stories Leonard Michaels Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 404 pp., $26

Sylvia A Novel Leonard Michaels Introduction by Diane Johnson Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 130 pp., $13 paper

June 03, 2007|Lynell George | 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!"

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."

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."

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