book Michael

reviewed by Richard Weems

Published in Issue No. 44 ~ January, 2001

The ideas brewing behind the words of Flesh’s novel show promise: an unemployed, AIDS-infected man wakes on the morning of the third anniversary of his lover’s death and is visited by devotees of the cult of Michael. Religious atonement becomes a homoerotic embrace as the cultists mix religious dogma with unadulterated love (physical as well as forgiving), and our protagonist Stephen is suddenly faced with the very real possibility that End Time is near, and with it the promise of seeing his dead lover, Robert, again. As the novel continues, war in Russia becomes more and more probable, a war that might take the world down with it. Stephen sees this world as corrupt and not worth saving – his neighborhood dominated by drug dealers and the bars littered with gay sluts who would rather suck off a ring of willing participants than take an aging gay man home and show him some love.

But Michael as a whole is diluted and lacking vision. It’s a novel that wants to say a lot but manages little more than a peep. Stephen is a dreary character who mainly stares at the wall and thinks, a pastime that even Andy Warhol would quickly find tedious. We learn all too soon (and far too much of) the biography of our protagonist, whose depth of insight about the world can be summed up by the statement, “Everything was fucked.” As a child, Stephen discovers a brief sense of belonging in the Bible, but his laughably stereotypical parents soon destroy any happiness in his life with their banal self-involvement and predictable shame of Stephen’s sexuality. As an adult, Stephen pines for his dead Robert, but not for any discernibly convincing reason. In fact, all we ever really know of Robert is that he once tried to strangle Stephen. Is Stephen a masochistic character intended to spark our interest through his horrid weaknesses, a study in how a man can be thoroughly unlikable yet prove to be an interesting character worth redemption regardless?

Not in the least. Instead, Stephen is trying to prove he is someone deserving sympathy. His parents have rejected him for his homosexuality, friends have died of AIDS, his neighborhood is criminal-infested and he is out of work. But despite these sad circumstances, the reader feels little sympathy for Stephen. Lack of character development is the central failing behind Michael. Stephen’s problems are all exterior, his parents are drab stereotypes not worth hating, his criminal neighborhood exaggerated and unrealistic. His biography merely shows how forces beyond his character (or lack thereof) have continually beat him down, but there is nothing but bad luck in such a tale, and bad luck is nothing worth investing our sorrow in. Stephen’s plight is unfortunate but in no way tragic. Tragedy requires participation; Stephen is merely a spectator. Even his motivation for letting the cultists into his apartment at the beginning of the book is vague and unknown even to Stephen. He is a protagonist who reacts dully to the world around him, a Mersault with not even the capability of shooting an Arab because he lacks direction to take such action. Perhaps this book’s message lies in Stephen’s frequent comparisons of the present with the past (the 1970s). His neighborhood was better, as was the gay night life. But this is a societal issue, not one of character.

Stephen’s entire purpose in this book seems to be drinking, smoking pot and thinking about how bad his life is. With this pale center of a book, what chance does the end of the world have? Even nuclear devastation would yield little more than a fizzle when there is no interesting foreground of which to mourn the loss. Ultimately, Michael may attempt to be a powerful story of sorrow and redemption, but neither of these ever emerge in a noteworthy manner.

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Richard K. Weems ( is the author of Anything He Wants, winner of the Spire Fiction Award and finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, and The Need for Character. His short story publications include North American Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Mississippi Review, Other Voices, Crescent Review, The Florida Review and The Beloit Fiction Journal. He will be teaching once again this MLK weekend at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway in Cape May, New Jersey.