On rereading Leonard Michaels’s I Would Have Saved Them If I Could
It’s called (lovingly or disparagingly, depending on who’s doing the calling) the Chus Bus, short for the Hasid Bus, an ill-kempt, mechanically questionable, grime-covered tour bus that runs daily from Manhattan’s Diamond District roughly 90 miles north to various stops in the Orthodox neighborhoods of New Square, Spring Valley, and Monsey, my hometown. If you travel the Garden State Parkway, you may have seen the late afternoon bus pulled over to the curb for mincha, the daily afternoon prayer service. There’s an ark in the back for Monday and Thursday mornings when they read from the Torah, and a heavy woolen curtain that runs down the center to divide the men from the women. Once a week, I would take the A train from my yeshiva high school on 181st Street down to Times Square, where I would purchase an excessive amount of pornography and head over to 47th and Fifth to catch the Chus Bus home. To kill time before the next bus, I would peruse the shelves of a small, misplaced bookstore down the block called the Gotham Book Mart.
One day, being both early for the bus and a sucker for an interesting title, I spent the last $12 of my pornography budget on a small purple book I had never heard of and didn’t bother to look through. I took a seat at the back of the bus, just beside the holy ark, and sneaked a peek at the cover of my new porno video.
“What if they catch me with this video?” I wondered.
Not caring to find out, I took out my new book, opened it up to the first story, and read about a group of voyeuristic yeshiva kids peeking in their rabbi’s bedroom window as he fucked his wife.
“What if they catch me with this book?” I wondered.
And that was the first time I read Leonard Michaels’ I Would Have Saved Them If I Could.
Novelist, short story writer, critic, and professor, Leonard Michaels was born to Polish immigrants and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, where he spoke only Yiddish until the age of 5. His introduction to English literature was his mother reading Dickens aloud in her heavy Polish. His first collection of short stories, Going Places, was nominated for a National Book Award in 1969. Six years later, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could was named one of the six outstanding works of fiction of the year by The New York Times.
It is not a happy book.
I was not a happy teen.
“I’d never write about being happy,” Michaels wrote in his posthumously published diaries. “It’s of no interest as a dramatic subject. Being sad feels personal, even unique.”
He is a man of his word.
“My family came from Poland,” says the narrator of the story “Murderers,” “then never went any place until they had heart attacks.” This is the story I read on the bus, the story of the four friends who sneak up to the roof of a nearby building to watch through a window as their rabbi had sex with his wife.
They jerk off. One of the boys falls off the roof and dies. The others get sent away to camp in New Jersey. The end.
Michael’s writing style has been described as terse, specific, and direct. The effect is one of melancholy, bleakness, and despair. Some of the stories follow a traditional pattern of beginning-middle-end. Many of the stories are broken into even shorter units, individually titled, some no longer than a paragraph. From the story titled “Eating Out”:
My mother said, “So? What’s new?” I said, “Something happened.” She said, “I knew it. I had a feeling. I could tell. Why did I ask? Sure, something happened. Why couldn’t I sit still? Did I have to ask? I had a feeling. I knew, I knew. What happened?”
I was in love with his sadness. As the narrator of “Murderers” concludes, “At night, lying in the bunkhouse, I listened to the sound of owls. I’d never before heard that sound, the sound of darkness, blooming, opening inside you like a mouth.”
Michaels’ characters seem to be running along the sideline of life, always on the verge of stepping out of bounds into despair yet never entirely sure if survival is worth the bother. The title story, “I Would Have Saved Them If I Could,” intersperses a letter from Lord Byron with reflections on family, art, and literature in the wake of the Holocaust. In the section titled “Blossoms,” the narrator tells of a Russian uncle, a survivor of the war against the Nazis whose sons are now both doctors and drive Jaguars: “It could seem, now that he’s a big shot, he gives lessons in humility. But how else to defend himself against happiness? He sees terrifying vulnerability in the blossoms of nachas.”
For Michaels, even happy endings aren’t happy. Joy makes you vulnerable. Bad is bad, but good might be worse. “For from a certain point of view, none of this shit matters at all anymore.”
A 15-year-old kid with a backpack full of pornography slunk down in his seat in the back of the Chus Bus, man, that was all I wanted to hear.
My mother was dying. So was I. I was 22, recently married, clinically depressed, and borderline suicidal. On the advice of a psychiatrist, I called my mother to ask her for some space. For some time. For some distance.
“Okay,” she said. “I have breast cancer.”
And that was the second time I read I Would Have Saved Them If I Could. From the short story “Downers”:
“Everything is fine,” I said. My mother said, “I hope so.” I said, “It is, it is.’ My mother said, “I hope so.” I said, “Everything is wonderful. Couldn’t be better. How do you feel?” My mother said, “Like a knife is pulling out of my liver.”
Other writers of Michaels’ generation, notably Philip Roth, have written on Jewish themes, but while the demons of Roth’s characters are internal, Michaels’ are external—family, friends, circumstance. He writes of people condemned, from Jesus Christ to the characters in Kafka and Dostoevsky to the three men Byron watched being beheaded. But Michaels’ real interest is not in the victims; it is in the witnesses, the survivors (if they can be called that). Misery doesn’t just love company, it demands it, and Michaels seems to want to know how to keep your head while all about you people are—quite literally, in the case of Byron—losing theirs. In a later essay titled “My Yiddish,” Michaels states that Jews are no good at writing murders ( “… in regard to murder, what Jew compares with Shakespeare, Webster, Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, or Elmore Leonard?”), but in this collection it seems it’s more the not being murdered that Michaels is concerned with. It’s the surviving. The going on while you can’t go on. The title story begins with the tale of the narrator’s cousin condemned to a bar mitzvah he does not want to have. He escapes the dreaded event, but his brand new bicycle does not, mangled and left for dead in the driveway by the young man’s father.
You’ll survive, says Michaels, but you won’t like it.
Let me know how the chemo goes, I said to my mother.
I’ll call you next week, she said.
That demanding misery again.
I would have saved her if I could.
I am 34 years old now; more than 10 years on from the last time I read I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, and 20 years on from the first time I read I Would Have Saved Them If I Could. I can’t smoke as much pot as I used to, and two’s my limit on margaritas. Three if it’s good tequila.
My capacity for misery has decreased as well. Bleakness can be exhausting, and this time around I found I Would Have Saved Them If I Could exhausting. I still admire the writing—the control, the precision with language—but putting it down this time I felt like someone had taken a shit on my front lawn. The narrator would have saved them if he could, but he can’t. Nor can he save himself. And even if he could save himself, well, why bother? I have survived my own family—broken from them since I last read I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, some scars, a little bruising, but survived—and this time, after reading I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, I felt like I’d just spent a month of Sabbaths locked in a suburban split-level ranch with my parents and siblings.
Yiddish, Michaels wrote,
is probably at work in my written English. This moment, writing in English, I wonder about the Yiddish undercurrent. If I listen, I can almost hear it: “This moment”—a stress followed by two neutral syllables—introduces a thought which hangs like a herring in the weary droop of “writing in English,” and then comes the announcement, “I wonder about the Yiddish undercurrent.” The sentence ends in a shrug.
I suspect it’s that Yiddish shrug that I’m reacting to, a shrug that runs through the entire collection. A kid falls off the roof and dies? Shrug. A man gets an anonymous handjob in the subway? Shrug. Some of us are condemned to die, but the rest of us are condemned to live? Shrug.
My grandparents spoke Yiddish. My parents spoke Yiddish. And until the age of 5, I delivered the Four Questions at the Seder in Yiddish. I know this shrug is supposed to be charming, but it’s always felt more like resignation. I know it’s supposed to feel like, “That’s life!” but it’s always felt more like, “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”
Stanley Elkin laughed in the face of life’s absurdity. Roth masturbated in it. Leonard Michaels shrugs.
In his diaries, Michaels writes of his mother buying him a pair of puke green corduroys that swished loudly as he walked. Shortly after, he hits a home run during a neighborhood stickball game:
Above the rage of traffic and my team screaming for me to run, I heard my shoes slap the asphalt and my green pants whistling to first, whistling to second, whistling to third, whistling home. That’s my life—good hit, horrible pants.
A ray of light there in those last four words. Not a shrug, but a smirk. A bemused shake of the head. Leonard Michaels was a masterful writer, his sentences oftentimes astonishing and illuminating. Lately, though, I am more in the mood for a book called Good Hit, Horrible Pants.
So it is back to the bookshelf with I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, three rows up, dead center, where I can find it when I undoubtedly want to read it again. Life is cyclical, and so is our interest in books and in the screams and shouts they record within them. Why? Shrug.