By Leonard Michaels
Original Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Current Publisher: Out of Print
Matthew Eck writes:
Going Places by Leonard Michaels appears in complete and original form in The Collected Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). This is one collection of short stories that every writer on Earth should own. Michaels is one of the premier short story writers in the American tradition. His stories are like cars that bounce against the guardrails and yet always arrive at the dealership unbearably beautiful. The lines are like candy to be savored. One line amidst many will seemingly have nothing to do with those around it, then a few moments later you’ll be doubled-over with laughter, or shaking your head with pity. Every line, every word leads the reader toward those powerful endings.
“City Boy” is a perfect example of his careening, graceful style.
“Phillip,” she said. “This is crazy.”
I didn’t agree or disagree. She wanted some answer. I bit her neck. She kissed my ear. It was nearly three in the morning. We had just returned. The apartment was dark and quiet. We were on the living-room floor and she repeated, “Phillip, this is crazy.” Her crinoline broke under us like cinders. Furniture loomed all around—settee, chairs, a table with a lamp. Pictures were cloudy blotches drifting above. But no lights, no things to look at, no eyes in her head. She underneath me and warm. The rug was warm, soft as mud, deep. Her crinoline cracked like sticks. Our naked bellies clapped together. Air fired out like farts. I took it as applause.
The story moves along as Veronica’s father discovers them having sex. Phillip is soon outside the apartment, the front door is shut and he’s “naked as a wolf.” Naked in New York City he ponders. “I needed poise. Without poise the street was impossible.”
The story rushes gracefully along as Phillip walks on his hands into the elevator, hence the great line, “Beards were fashionable.”
That last line is best savored with a loved one some Sunday morning.
Philip takes the elevator with Ludwig, which brings about this recognition, “Ludwig had feelings.” Then he walks to the subway where Veronica finds him. Her father’s had a heart attack, but she doesn’t tell him yet, she tells him that everything at home is, “All right.”
He then discovers that he’s angry.
Until she said that, I had no idea I was angry. I flicked the cigarette into the gutter and suddenly I knew why. I didn’t love her. The cigarette sizzled in the gutter. Like truth. I didn’t love her. Black hair, green eyes, I didn’t love her. Slender legs. I didn’t. Last night I had looked at her and said to myself, “I hate communism.” Now I wanted to step on her head. Nothing less than that would do. If it was a perverted thought, then it was a perverted thought. I wasn’t afraid to admit it to myself.
There are so many good lines in that paragraph. Love fizzling itself out, and the line that gives it all a greater context and meaning is the one that comes out of nowhere: “Last night I had looked at her and said to myself, ‘I hate communism.’”
Michaels conveys the perverted thought as well as anyone. Of course what is perverted to some is only living to others. The story ends the only way it can.
She took my shirt front in a fist like a bite. She whispered. I said, “What?” She whispered again, “Fuck me.” The clock ticked like crickets. The Vlamincks spilled blood. We sank into the rug as if it were quicksand.
The happy couples are hard to recognize in this collection. Couples meet and fall apart. In the story “Manikin” a woman is raped by someone other than her boyfriend. She is pregnant because of the rape. Her boyfriend breaks up with her when she tells him what has happened. She hangs herself. The story ends with the man who raped her saying when he finds out she’s dead, “She loved me.” Then he meets her as she drifts up out of the dew.
She came closer. He seized her in his arms and they rolled together in the grass until he found himself screaming through his teeth because, however much of himself he lavished on her, she was dead.
In one of his journal entries included in Time Out of Mind, Michaels wrote, “I’d never write about being happy. It’s of no interest as a dramatic subject. Being sad feels personal, even unique.”
In all of the stories the characters seem rushed toward annihilation. The title story that ends the collection Going Places offers this glimpse of the main character’s view of his situation and his place in the world after he gets savagely beaten in the cab he drives:
…Beckman was welcomed to the end of a successful interview and a life made wretched by rattling kidneys, the stench of gasoline, of cigarettes, of perfume and alcohol and vomit, the end of surly toughs, drunken women, whoring soldiers, vagrant blacks and whites, all the streaming, fearsome, pathetic riffraff refuse of the city’s dark going places, though places in hell, while he, Beckman, driver of the cab went merely everyplace, anyplace, until the sun returned the day and he stopped, parked, dropped his head against the seat…
There’s a marvelous philosophy underneath many of the stories, a Dostoevsky lost-ness in the mutilated world of the characters.
Oh, he had felt the proximity of annihilation just passing a strange man on a dark street or making love to his girl, but the thrill of imminent nothing always came to nothing, gone before he might study it, leaving him merely angry or vacant and low.
Going Places as a collection and a short story end with Beckman hanging upside down from a pipe while help is on the way, and the only thing underneath him is a long drop.
Matthew Eck’s debut novel, The Farther Shore, was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 selection. Among other honors, the novel won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the Society of Midland Authors Award for fiction, and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection. Someone should make a film of that book. Eck received his MFA from the University of Montana. He currently lives in Kansas City. (Photo: Katie Cramer Eck)
Fiction Finalists That Year:
- Leonard Gardner for Fat City
- Leonard Michaels for Going Places
- Jean Stafford for The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford
- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. for Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade
Fiction Winner That Year: Joyce Carol Oates for them
Fiction Judges That Year: Barbara Epstein, Peter Matthiessen, Harvey Swados
The Year in Literature:
- The Collected Stories by Jean Stafford won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
- Alexandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for literature.
- Going Places was Michaels’ first book.
- Michaels was a Finalist once more, in 1982 in the short-lived First Novel category for The Men’s Club.