The opening and the penultimate chapters of this short novel offer the kind of rawly fresh fiction--in lunatic attack,...

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THE MEN'S CLUB

The opening and the penultimate chapters of this short novel offer the kind of rawly fresh fiction--in lunatic attack, orchestration, implication--that electrifies. If the rest doesn't quite match these sections, one can be both disappointed and understanding in equal measure. The book's premise is one shared by a small existing sub-genre (for instance, the movie The Bachelor Party): the getting-together with the boys, constitutionally unrevealing creatures made transparent by lasting out a long evening with each other. The unnamed college-teacher narrator receives a phone call (""an attack on my life. I get confused"") from a Berkeley neighbor, an ex-pro-basketball-player named Cavanaugh: it's an invitation to a men's club being held a few nights hence at someone else's house. Uneasily, the narrator goes. At the house that night there are six other men--Cavanaugh and five strangers: real-estate executive Solly Berliner (wonderfully cockeyed and unpredictable, prime Jewish-comedian stuff), a doctor, a lawyer, a psychotherapist, and a young businessman (who's brought along the marijuana). They smoke, they drink Zinfandel, they rob the refrigerator of the elaborate spread of food--chicken, a whole salmon, salads--that the host's wife has prepared for her women's group the next night. You meanwhile have become aware--distinctly, like soda bubbles up your nose--of the ubiquity and drive of the reversal here: men acting out a desecration of a contemporary ritual of women. And when everyone begins to tell stories (women ""talk,"" men tell tales), the book really takes off. These deeply schlemeil-y life-and-love stories are mostly pointless--not testimonies of humiliation, as in a women's CR group, but of incomprehension, of the dumbness to fall in love with drunk or coolly superior women; and they invite no larger lessons or sympathy. But most of them are hilarious, just galumphing off into men's blunt detours and hopeless strategies. ("" 'So why should I phone? To tell her I hate her?' 'No. Of course not. You couldn't put it that way.' 'How should I put it?' 'Tell her you love her.' "") After all the food is gone, the dining table is overturned, and the host takes out a set of throwing knives he once won in a poker game: they all throw knives for a while at the kitchen door. Then, like a pack, they drunkenly howl for a spell. . . . At its best, the comic extremity here is magnificent, especially in the traded stories, with their wonderful openings: ""Usually, about this time. . . I'm in my back yard, in robe and slippers, beating my dog with a magazine."" The book only stalls and becomes too loony-tune, in fact, when the narrator observes and privately records what's going on: these reflections seem a bit mannered, glinting and shifting and suddenly blinking out. Read this, then, either as a relentless, subtly psychological send-up of women's-lib fiction (Marilyn French, say) or as prime example of atom-smasher social comedy; either way, it's the talented Michaels' best work yet.

Pub Date: April 27, 1981

ISBN: 0374208190

Page Count: -

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1981