The Men’s Club by Leonard Michaels

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Reviewed by Simon

There have been quite a few reprints, in recent years, from the interwar period and thereabouts. We are familiar with Golden Age detective fiction coming back into print, or the likes of Persephone, Virago Modern Classics, and others looking to the 1920s and 1930s for forgotten gems. Less often do reprints emerge from the 1970s – and so it was intriguing that Daunt Books have looked to Leonard Michaels and The Men’s Club for their latest offering (originally published in 1978 according to the inner flap, and 1981 according to Wikipedia – who knows?).

And what a curious novel this is. While I very much enjoyed reading it – hence why it is being included in Shiny New Books – I spent quite a lot of the time wondering quite why.

The subject matter can be dealt with quickly. Seven men decide to form a club. They are friends, acquaintances, and strangers – the (unnamed, I believe) narrator knows few of them when he turns up to the first meeting, and he isn’t particularly out to charm. But why a club in the first place? The host’s wife is having a women’s club, and the men decide that they should give it a whirl themselves…

I thought about the women. Anger, identity, politics, rights, wrongs. I envied them. It seemed attractive to be deprived in our society. Deprivation gives you something to fight for, it makes you morally superior, it makes you serious. What was left for men these days? They already had everything. Did they need clubs? The mere sight of two men together suggests a club. Consider Damon and Pythias, Huck and Jim, Hamlet and Horatio. The list is familiar. Even the Lone Ranger wasn’t lonely. He had Tonto. There is Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, but, generally, two women suggest gossip and a kiss goodbye. Kramer, still talking meandered in a sea of non-existent purpose. I said, ‘Why are you talking about our purpose? Let’s just say what we want to do’.

What they want to do is, it turns out, is tell stories about themselves. And this is where I began wondering why I was finding the novel compelling – because there are several drawbacks. The Men’s Club often seems to have been written by somebody who has never met a man, and is drawing all their information from the bits of a high school film that take place in a locker room. Almost all the memories shared by these men are about sex – recurrent shouts of “Did you make it with her?” – until it feels like ‘Summer Days’ from Grease. The men talk at length about how their affairs, told in elaborate narratives (and often enormous unbroken paragraphs) that bear no similarities to how anybody tells stories.

Are there any men like these in the real world? If so, I have had the privilege of never meeting any of them. People sometimes ask whether a male author can write as a woman, or a female author can write as a man – which always seems like a slightly silly question to me, as though there were only two types of people in the world, and gender was the sole distinction between people’s characters and outlooks. Well, during The Men’s Club I wondered if Leonard Michaels could write as a man.

So why am I still writing about it here? Because, despite everything, it is a tour de force of style. Michaels completely overwhelms with his writing style that doesn’t let up for a moment. It is composed of sharp sentences, short sentences, and emotionless statements. Sometimes just individual words. It builds and it builds, creating a consistency of tone that made me step back and admire the whole – even while any single section had me scratching my head. There is something about an author committing so entirely and so successfully that can’t help but impress. His way with words, with creating an environment (one can hardly call it a world; this is not a real world) is phenomenal.

This is perhaps my most confusing (to me) review in Shiny New Books to date. I shan’t re-read The Men’s Club. I don’t think I’ll ever read anything else by Leonard Michaels. But he is undeniably an extremely gifted writer – and this, as a united piece of work, is brilliantly written. What an unusual, disconcerting creation.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

Leonard Michaels, The Men’s Club (Daunt: London, 2016). 978-1907970849, 152pp., paperback.

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