THE STORY: Siegfried Mortkowitz on Leonard Michaels’ “City Boy”

Short story short: A young man has sex with his girlfriend on the floor of her parents’ apartment. They are discovered by her father. Young man flees, bare-assed as Lear. He walks on his hands, talks to the doorman, runs right-side-up through the streets, has a confrontation with a black man in a subway change booth, gets his clothes, goes back to the apartment, has sex with his girlfriend on the floor of her parents’ apartment. The end.

That, more or less, is the plot of Leonard Michaels’ “City Boy”, one of the best American short stories to come out of the fertile 1960s. Though not much “happens” in the course of its nine pages, its brilliant, pyrotechnic style and the conflicted, extravagantly intellectual musings of its protagonist (and the author’s early fictional alter ego), Phillip Liebowitz, lend the story the force of a meteor crashing into a lake.

“City Boy” was first published by The Paris Review in 1966, and was included in Michaels’ first story collection, Going Places, three years later. It operates on what has been generally regarded as Philip Roth territory: a young Jewish man’s tortured attempts to get laid and grow up. Indeed, Michaels is often compared to Roth because of their shared ethnicity (Jewish), subject matter (the male libido) and contemporaneity (Michaels was 10 weeks older than Roth). But Michaels was far more uncompromising in his writing, far more audacious in his story-telling, far less reader-friendly (until the marvelous Nachmann stories he produced in the final decade of his life). And he was a much more exacting and exciting stylist than Roth, a true stylist, in the manner of Nabokov and Delillo, who worried about every word, every punctuation mark. There is probably no better example of his early style than the opening of “City Boy”:

“Phillip,” she said, “this is crazy.”
I didn’t agree or disagree. She wanted some answers. I bit her neck. She kissed my ear. 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 thing to look at, no eyes to the head. She was 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 chandelier clicked. The clock ticked as if to split its glass. “Phillip,” she said, “this is crazy.” A little voice against the grain and power. Not enough to stop me. Yet once I had been a man of feeling. We went to concerts, walked in the park, trembled in the maid’s room. Now, in the foyer, a flash of hair and claws. We stumbled to the living-room floor. She said, “Phillip, this is crazy.”

The frantic pace, the short, rock-hard sentences and edgy hemiquavers of sound and meaning, the repetitions (the crinoline, for example, or “this is crazy”) and the swinging assonantal rhythm remind me of the exhilarating solos of legendary bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker: It is musical, it is lean and hard, it soars.

Michaels was a jazz aficionado, and he loved Latin dance music (he believed Tito Puente should be awarded a congressional medal and that the inventor of the mambo was as great an artist as Picasso). In an interview with The Paris Review—which, typical of his difficulties with public acclaim, was not published until 2008, five years after his death— Michaels said of his style:

I’d worked very hard revising my prose toward the sound I wanted, and I’d been exceedingly conscious of the musical elements—repetition, the rhythm of paragraphs, etcetera…. I wanted no needless sound in my sentences. I hated to use adverbs because of the ‘ly’ endings. They seemed like sloopy trailers. They made the sense mushy and weak and artificial. I didn’t want to mean anything beyond what could inhere in the particular limited aural sensation. Idea and sound had to be exactly the same length, or the same density, as if a word could be flesh. That used to be my idea of real writing. Sculptural.

Another influence on his writing style was the Yiddish language. The son of Polish immigrants, he spoke the language until he was six. And, he said, his mother’s heavily accented readings of Dickens also marked him: “If you can imagine a little boy… listening to his mother, who can hardly speak English, reading Dickens hour after hour in the most extraordinary accent, it might help account for my ear.”
The opening scene of “City Boy” creates a fictional world in which the external—the apartment and its furnishings—and the internal—Phillip’s tortured, over-heated, overly intellectual mental life—bleed into each other. Throughout the story, there is a constant intercourse between the world and Phillip’s mind feeling out the world like a blind man’s cane:

The breath in her nostrils whipped mucus. It cracked in my ears like flags. I dreamed we were in her mother’s Cadillac, trailing flags. I heard her voice before I heard the words. “Phillip, this is crazy. My parents are in the next room.” Her cheek jerked against mine, her breasts were knuckles in my nipples. I burned. Good death was killed. I burned with hate. A rabbi shook his finger: “You shouldn’t hate.”

This is no ordinary act of youthful sex. The looming furniture, the crackling crinoline, the mucus “cracking…like flags,” the hate, the rabbi’s wagging finger all create an expressionistic ambiance that verges on the sinister. This juxtaposition of the erotic, the comic and the forbidding runs throughout the story. Innocence does not exist in this world. Michaels’ characters, driven by lust, fear and self-preservation, are trying to get away with as much as they can while dealing with a hostile world and their own conflicted emotions.

Phillip and his girlfriend, Veronica Cohen, are discovered on the floor, still coitally connected, by the girl’s father. This leads Phillip to ruminate feverishly, his penny-ante philosophy destroyed by a single wisecrack:

The question of authority is always with us. Who is responsible for the triggers pulled, buttons pressed, the gas, the fire? Doubt banged my brain. My heart lay in a fist of intellect, which squeezed out feeling like piss out of kidneys. Mrs. Cohen’s voice demolished doubt, feeling, intellect. It ripped from the bedroom.
“For God’s sake, Morris, don’t be banal. Tell the schmuck to go home and keep his own parents awake, if he has any.”

That image of his heart being trapped in a “fist of intellect,” with his feelings compared to drops of piss, is as close as Phillip will come to self-knowledge. Terrified and guilt-laden, he runs out of the apartment stark naked and (in one of the funniest schticks in modern American literature) seeks safety in a pose:

I needed poise. Without poise the street was impossible. Blood shot to my brain, thought blossomed. I’d walk on my hands. Beards were fashionable. I kicked up my feet, kicked the elevator button, faced the door, and waited. I bent one elbow like a knee. The posture of a clothes model, easy, poised.

Phillip is always seeking escape in poses, for he is almost all gesture and little substance. While waiting, upside-down and naked, for the elevator, he ruminates about the family of the Cohens:

It was worth being naked to see how mercilessly I could think. I had [Mr. Cohen’s] number. Mrs. Cohen’s too. I was learning every second. I was a city boy. No innocent shitkicker from Jersey. I was the A train, the Fifth Avenue bus. I could be a cop. My name was Phillip, my style New York City.

Thus begins a journey that will take Phillip from top to bottom, from the penthouse decorated with “Utrillos and Vlamincks” to the “spit-mottled” subway, a fall from grace similar to Lear’s: “The greatest play is about a naked man,” Phillip muses. “A picture of Lear came to me, naked, racing through the wheat. I could be cool.” King Lear cool? Shakespeare is not the only thing he does not understand.

It probably helps to know that Michaels did not like New York City. He’d grown up on its rough Lower East Side, and came to regard the city as a violent and amoral place populated by people as grasping and desperate as Phillip. Here is the opening of another story featuring young Liebowitz, “Getting Lucky”:

Liebowitz makes his head out of cigarettes and coffee, goes to the West Side Subway, stands in a screaming iron box, and begins to drift between shores of small personal misery and fantastic sex, but this morning he felt fingers and, immediately, the flow of his internal life forked into dialogue between himself—standing man who lived too much blind from chest down—and the other, a soft, inquisitive spider pinching the tongue of his zipper, dragging it toward the iron floor that boomed in the bones of his rooted feet, boomed in his legs, and boomed through his unzipped fly. Thus, with no how-do-you-do, Liebowitz was in the hand of an invisible stranger. Forty-second Street, the next stop, was minutes away. Liebowitz tried to look around. Was everyone groping everyone else? Fads in Manhattan spread to millions.

Descending with the (presumably German) elevator operator, Ludwig, Phillip gives his “fist of intellect” free rein: “His profile was an etching by Dürer. Good peasant stock. How had he fallen to such work? Existence precedes essence. At the controls, silent, enduring, he gave me strength for the street.”

Moments later, Ludwig chastises him for his treatment of Veronica, which leads Phillip to conclude: “Ludwig had feelings. They spoke to mine. Beneath the uniform, a man. Essence precedes existence.”
That Phillip can, within the space of a few seconds, accept one premise and its opposite speaks volumes about his city smarts. Out on the street, on his feet again, still naked, Phillip looks back at Ludwig, and is in for another surprise.

He took off his coat, rolled it into a pillow, and lay down. I had never stayed to see him do that before, but always rushed off to the subway. As if I were indifferent to the life of the building. Indeed, like a burglar, I seized the valuables and fled to the subway. I stayed another moment, watching good Ludwig, so I could hate myself. He assumed the modest, saintly posture of sleep. One leg here, the other there. His good head on his coat. A big arm across his stomach, the hand between his hips. He made a fist and punched up and down.

The word good, repeated here, certainly takes a beating. Like everybody else, good old Ludwig just wants to get off, no matter how. Phillip’s vision of the world and of himself is exposed as foolish at every turn. In fact, cool, sophisticated Phillip is in for another, even more humiliating setback, at the bottom of the world, the New York subway. “I went down the steps goatfooted, stamping, elevated by each declension. I was a city boy, no mincing creep from the sticks.”A black man sits in the change booth.

He didn’t see me approach, didn’t see my eyes take him in, figure him out. Shirt, glasses, tie—I knew how to address him. I coughed. He looked up.
“Sir, I don’t have any money. Please let me through the turnstile. I come this way every week and will certainly pay you the next time.”
He merely looked at me. Then his eyes flashed like fangs. Instinctively, I guessed what he felt. He didn’t owe favors to a white man. He didn’t have to bring his allegiance to the Transit Authority into question for my sake.
“Hey, man, you naked?”
“Step back a little.”
I stepped back.
“You’re naked.”
I nodded.
“Get your naked ass the hell out of here.”
“Sir,” I said, “I know these are difficult times, but can’t we be reasonable? I know that…”
“Scat, mother, go home.”

The man’s anger bewilders Phillip, who is blind as old Lear to himself and the world.

Did he think I was a bigot? Maybe I was running around to get him upset. His anger was incomprehensible otherwise. It made me feel like a bigot. First a burglar, then a bigot. I needed a cigarette. I could hardly breathe. Air was too good for me. At the top of the stairs, staring down, stood Veronica. She had my clothes.
“Poor, poor,” she said.

Those two words, and the pity they express, work like hammer blows , and render Phillip incapable even of lighting a cigarette without Veronica’s help. They also shift the balance of power: for the rest of the story, Veronica calls the shots, telling Phillip how to behave, what to do. And he is reduced to the status of a child. She has seen through him, seen through his poses, seen something real, and this infuriates him. “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.”

It’s clear by now—if it hadn’t been before—that Phillip is a grasping little shit. But his anger quickly passes, giving way to self-pity, self-righteousness and, finally, more ineffectual intellectualizing:

I was sorry, sincerely sorry, but with clothes on my back. I knew certain feelings would not survive humiliation…. Victoria and I were finished. Before we reached the door I would say deadly words. They’d come in a natural way, kill her a little. Veronica, let me step on your head or we’re through. Maybe we’re through anyway. It would deepen her looks, give philosophy to what was only charming in her face. The dawn was here. A new day. Cruel, but change is cruel. I could bear it. Love is infinite and one. Women are not. Neither are men. The human condition. Nearly unbearable.

On the way back to the Cohen apartment, Victoria tells Phillip her father has had a heart attack and was taken to hospital. Back in the flat they learn that Mrs. Cohen will remain at her husband’s bedside for the rest of the night. The news stuns Phillip, but Veronica knows exactly what she wants.

Her eyes looked at mine. At them as if they were as flat and opaque as hers. I said in a slow, stupid voice, “You’re allowed to do that? Stay overnight in a hospital with a patient? Sleep in his room?” She continued looking at my eyes. I shrugged, looked down. 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.

Michaels offers no easy explanations, no moral niceties, certainly no politically correct platitudes. The words fist, bite, blood, quicksand suggest violence and captivity. Phillip may be a silly little shit, but what do we make of Veronica? Is this an act of feminist empowerment? Hardly. Michaels did not deal in easy answers and rote solutions. Nothing had changed from the beginning of the story—it begins and ends with fornication—except for the protagonist. Humiliated and defeated, Phillip has become passive and Veronica is now the aggressive one (“She took my shirt front in a fist like a bite”).

The lack of resolution, the moral ambiguities, the aggressiveness and sexual hunger of his characters and the often experimental nature of his writing deprived Michaels of the wide public acclaim he deserved (though he was lionized by his peers and often praised with that most back-handed of all compliments, as being a “writer’s writer”). He was aware of it. In an interview published in the New England Review in 1990, Michaels said, “Judging from some reviews of my work, some folks are made very angry by the things I write. I can’t somehow project a benevolent authorial persona or tell readers what they need or like to hear. I wish I could, because more than anything Americans like to like.”

But in his Nachmann stories, written over the last ten years of his life, Leonards created an accessible reader-friendly style and a character that was in almost every way the antithesis to Phillip Liebowitz. Nachmann was a mathematician and a man so consciously (and conscientiously) virtuous “he’d walk half a mile back to the newsstand or grocery store to return the money. It was a compulsion—to make things right—that extended to his work in mathematics.”

The seven stories featuring Nachmann are wonderful reads, the style less pyrotechnical, far less flashy, than in the early stories, but the mystery of human behavior is still at the heart of Michaels’ art. At the end of “Nachmann at the Races,” the hero wanders through a parking lot so exhilarated from having helped someone needy win a thousand dollars that he gets lost:

He didn’t remember at all where he’d parked. There were thousands of cars. He was confused, helpless as a lost child, and yet no less happy. Sooner or later his car would turn up. The feeling wasn’t so bad, the feeling of being lost.

The best of Leonard Michaels’ stories produce that same exhilaration of being lost and feeling that it isn’t so bad at all.

Siegfried Mortowitz
SIEGFRIED MORTKOWITZ works as a free-lance journalist and lives in Prague. His work has appeared in B O D Y, The Prague Revue, Brown’s Window, After Hours. After Hours Press has just published his first chapbook, Eating Brains and Other Poems.