Thursday, August 24, 2017

"Murderers" (1971)

Read story by Leonard Michaels online.

Leonard Michaels is not a writer I know well. He's often compared with Philip Roth, who I know better. Michaels was born the same year as Roth and similarly interested in the experience of American Jews in 20th-century East Coast environs, notably New York. "Murderers" is a very short story, only about five printed pages, that has the feeling of an anecdote, or is built around an anecdote, and enlarged from there. Somehow it ended up in two of the anthologies I've been going through. In Brooklyn, a group of young adolescent boys has discovered that "the rabbi" and his wife often have afternoon sex with the windows open. The boys have naturally enough made a habit of spying on this activity, though it requires that they do so from a precarious perch on a water tank. The rabbi and his wife are mysterious, with unexplained details, perhaps the most notable of which is that the wife is bald-headed, and wears a variety of wigs. The unnamed first-person narrator is adult and sophisticated enough to describe what they spy on as, "In psychoanalysis, this is 'The Primal Scene.'" Yet nothing is made of the woman's baldness, which suggests a bizarre fetish, or more likely, the way we understand it now, cancer. Be that as it may, she and the rabbi are purely sexualized objects to the boys, and indeed, soon enough, one of them begins to masturbate, which doesn't seem to be taken as unusual by any of them. (I never had the circle-jerk experience and am always a little amazed when I hear accounts of them actually happening.) Then, however, there is a dreadful accident that leads to their discovery by the rabbi and eventually the life-changing punishment he inflicts on them. I say "life-changing" but it's little more traumatic than anything else about adolescence. It's a strange, violent, disconsolate story. There's an air of despondency and fatalism about it, like an English boarding school story. It is at pains to be comic—that's in the very conception of the accident at deepest levels—yet it's also not very funny at all. What's more, Michaels is clearly a witty and urbane writer. He's reminiscent of Roth stylistically as well as thematically. So it's a pretty neat trick he pulls in this short story, like a series of rabbit punches playing with your expectations. Spying on the sex of the long-married is ripe with comic potential. But wait, what? She's bald? The detail works like a bolt of anxiety, a tiny emotional shock to the system. Not to mention what happens to one of the boys—what happens to all of them, as a result. Overflowing with comic instincts, "Murderers" dares you to laugh.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

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