‘Leonard Michaels (1933–2003) was one of the most admired and influential American writers of the last half century,’ states the blurb on this reissue of the author’s first and penultimate novel, originally published in the US in 1978. Admired and influential Michaels may have been, but that was largely in his homeland and then as an essayist and author of short stories, rather than as a novelist. The Men’s Club was not published in the UK until 1981 (by Jonathan Cape) and is only now, 35 years later, being made available in paperback by Daunt Books in the category of ‘lost classics’.
If the phrase ‘crisis of masculinity’ did not exist in the late 1970s, Leonard Michaels could be said to have both anticipated and captured it in this book. A group of seven men — friends and strangers — gather in a suburban house in California:
Women wanted to talk about anger, identity, politics, etc. I saw posters in Berkeley urging them to join groups. I saw their leaders on TV. Strong, articulate faces. So when Cavanaugh phoned and invited me to join a men’s club, I laughed. Slowly, not laughing, he repeated himself.
Over the course of one evening, the men banter, drink beer, trade stories of the women they’ve loved and the women they haven’t, bawl, brawl and generally feel very sorry for themselves. As well they might, for The Men’s Club is a horribly acute and very funny depiction of male-pattern emotional idiocy, then or now.
The novel is written in a voice which perfectly fits the buttoned-up and often baffled men who do most of the talking in it: bullish yet uncertain of themselves or one another. The anecdotes they tell of extra-marital affairs, real or imagined, are often conveyed with a bewilderment that not only do their wives not understand them but nor, it transpires, do the other members of the group they are telling the anecdotes to.