August 2, 2011 by Reader's Connection
I was living in Bloomington when the story “Downers” first appeared in the New American Review, and I laughed as I bought a copy. Various sects had signs on telephone poles and bulletin boards, saying things like ”Bliss is your birthright.” I was eager for a pessimistic dose of Michaels and his wired, ego-blinded characters.
I had loved his first collection, Going Places, all the stories “sharp as knives,” as one of his characters says about a letter that he writes to a woman. Or a note he leaves in her door. Or something.
I can’t do the proper research and find out what the character was talking about because I´m unable to reread those early stories. A critic once said that the stories hadn´t aged well, but I´m afraid it’s me who´s not holding up. I can’t drink caffeinated coffee, either. When a barista accidentally serves me a cup, my library colleagues are amused by the way I buzz around in our cubicle.
I’m here to pitch the last stories that Michaels wrote, about the mathematician Raphael Nachman. Michaels hadn’t grown anymore optimistic about human nature or our place in the universe when he wrote them, but Nachman is capable of feeling regret and (yes!) bliss. He’s capable of trying to do the right thing, of struggling in his effort to know what the right thing is.
Though Nachman experiences some awful mental states, the stories don’t feel like caffeine jolts. I’m not alone, here, in my sense of the shift that Michaels underwent: Kirkus Reviews said that the Nachman “stories are written in a controlled, elegant style that transforms the rapacious search for meaning that marked the author’s earlier work into a sublime meditation on love and life.”
Starting with the happiest story is a terrible idea–where do you go from there?–but in ”Nachman at the Races,” our title character is plunged into a full-fledged ecstasy that isn’t related to sex; and in Michaelsland that’s unheard of. When I first read the story, I couldn’t believe he had written it.
You should of course read the seven tales in order. Allow the mathematically brilliant but socially challenged Nachman to be your guide. When you finish the last one, ”Cryptology,” the title of which is perfect, you might want to seek me out and let your cat pee on me. How could you ask me to share this experience? you might ask. But I think these seven are a masterwork, and I’m only sad that Michaels, who died in 2003 at the age of 70, didn’t live to write another half-dozen of them.
“Downers,” the Going Places stories, and the Nachmans all appear in The Collected Stories. The cover art for The Essays of Leonard Michaels appears above because I needed another picture, but also because some of the pieces gathered in that book (“A Sentimental Memoir,” for example) take off like great stories.