52 Men, by Louise Wareham Leonard (Red Hen Press, 2015), 125 pp., $36
Louise Wareham Leonard has a way with men. I mean, she has a way of capturing men, of seeing them, of seeing through them. In her latest book, 52 Men, she pulls together a series of portraits – 52 – of men she has known. The sketches are told through the eyes of Elise McKnight.
And right there we see the first key ingredient of this collection: the way this book traverses the line between fact and fiction. In Leonard’s writerly hands these men are portrayed in ways that seem both truthful and fanciful. The dialogue feels real; the descriptions are precise. The real extends through the whole to create the overall message, something the author includes in an introductory note: ‘People think that life is to not get hurt. But life is to be radical.’ There is everlasting hurt in these pages, but also a kind of bold acknowledgement of the hurt. 18 ends with this: ‘What are you going to do,’ E asks, visiting, reminding me that he cannot leave his wife, ‘about your loneliness?’
And soon after that we hear the close of another story, this time with Jay, who will ‘always care’: ‘I can’t help you.’ Listening to this, gripping on to my own pillow, I understand. I know he can’t help. I just wish he hadn’t said so.
The whole book can be seen as an answer to the question of loneliness and how, really, one can only respond to one’s own sense of loneliness alone. Some of the lovers leave Elise; some – too many – die. In the end, we get the sense that this is an exploration of loneliness itself, that no amount of lovers can fill a void if the void is not examined in the first place. And eventually, far into the book, we arrive at the void.
But besides loneliness, this is also a reflection on the ironies, and the joys, and all the rest that make up life itself. There are funny moments – moments that reveal the absurdity of life. Billy does not want to two-time Elise but he does, of course, and ends up with a Facebook page that announces he’s in an ‘open relationship with a woman named Marta’. Joel is fickle: ‘He writes on the card: You are the light at the end of the tunnel. Not long after this, he changes his mind.’ Paul plays games: ‘“I want to joust with you,” he tells me, “so you always remember.”’ Quentin is cheerful, telling stories and changing in and out of character: ‘“It’s important,” Quentin says, “to take one’s storytelling to extremes.”’ He would like to tell stories while on Mt Fuji, for example, ‘or underwater where gesture is so important’. Hewson is boring: ‘Hewson realizes that he is not interesting enough, that he is in finance and needs new interests, to make him more interesting.’
The light moments are essential. They are well timed, revealing a writer who knows how to see the hard and the soft. And sometimes, right in the middle of the silliness, there is an edge, as when the date with Quentin sees Elise running into an editor who had once embarrassed her in a writing workshop in front of 200 students:
The editor does not remember me. I feel humiliated. I have kept my hurt feelings for almost twenty years. The editor apologizes. ‘Oh the scars,’ he smiles, ‘that last forever.’ He lifts up his shirt and shows me his scars from cancer surgery. I show him my scars from a fire when I was three. Another good story, we all laugh.
Or as in how we see Peter, in 42:
Peter is small, he is fast, he is seven. In class one day, his friend hands me a note. ‘It is a love note,’ the friend says, ‘from Peter.’ Inside this note is a black smudge: crushed body of a black fly, wings broken, round oily hot eyes.
And sometimes in the middle, even, of a love story, there is a terrible truth that we don’t see coming, like when Elise accompanies Steve to a New York City Police Department ceremony in which he’ll be commended for his act of bravery:
I wear my best clothes. Steve and fifteen thousand other police wear their blue uniforms. Mayor Guiliani is there and applauds all the bravery. We receive a pamphlet about bravery and it turns out that all the acts of bravery being honored today involved the shooting of individuals.
One never gets the feeling the author is preaching, but she’s got a message she needs to tell – that much is apparent. The opening story closes with Mike saying, ‘Please … do not tell your parents.’ That do not tell sets the tone. Louise Wareham Leonard intends to tell, oh yes; she’ll tell it all. Because Elise sees it all – through various shades, from varying angles. She sees not only the men (a middle-school boy, a military man, an art student, a rock star, a writer, a stockbroker …), but she sees herself too. Sometimes Elise is a girlfriend, gussied up for her man. Sometimes she is aloof and cold. Sometimes she is a warrior. The interludes are often brief, though sometimes verging on a relationship (living together, or spending longer than one night, or even a short engagement). The interludes often involve nudity: this is a book about sex, after all. But the interludes always end: this is a book about abrupt change, too. The constant ending/shifting/lurching from one scene to the next, back and forth across time, gives the whole a kind of dream-like feel, like the setting in 25: a bath, a vanilla candle, red wine – ‘All night we lie together, his embrace like floating, like being high, like poppies.’ At times the reader feels transported into a world that may or may not be real. There is even Neruda: ‘In the dark pines the wind disentangles itself …’
And sometimes there’s a man who is almost too good (and whom the narrator rejects in the end):
‘Maybe this could be a time for us?’ [Jamie] asks – once every year or two, offering this, and himself, to me – but I turn away, I shield myself as if I do not deserve it.
There is in fact an urgency to these stories – a dark knowledge of the sheer dreadfulness of life even as we endure with humour and, sometimes, love. One young man comes right out with a warning, in a note that offers a hint at both dark and light: ‘Don’t let men treat you with disrespect. There are assholes out there but I’m not one of them.’
And then there is the last story – longer and more involved than the portraits in Part 1. In Part 2 of the book the author reveals her relationship with ‘Ben’, and from the moment we glimpse him we know there’s something lurking under the surface: ‘“There he is,” Steve said and raised his hand. Ben went to boarding school in upstate. He was eight years older than I, and seventeen. He didn’t wave back. He just raised his hand, as if to say, All right, I see you.’
That offers a warning: something creepy and enduring. To be seen, to be seen through: this is what happens in the relationship between Ben and Elise. First him seeing her, then her seeing him. It is backstory, and necessary, and heartbreaking. It’s at the centre of the whole. Ben is a brother, an ally, a thing to admire, a thing to fear. ‘His eyes were very blue,’ Elise tells us. ‘They were the only part of him that was bright, like dolls’ eyes, almost.’ A description that puts us on edge: we see him, and yet … what is it we can see, really? What is it Elise can see? What can she feel? This relationship with Ben is complicated and disturbing: ‘My body felt heavy and full of something that felt half good and half sort of painful, something I had never felt before.’ By the time we move fully into the scene, we know the ‘dark wave’ is coming. We know this is something the young girl simultaneously fears and wants.
The writing is unwavering. The author does not shy away from the difficult aspects of her story. What strikes me as oddly out of place, however, is how the whole of Part 2 stands on its own. I get it. On the one hand this is a part of her that needs to stand alone, that needs to be told in full, uninterrupted, that needs to be there as backdrop for everything else. I like how Leonard never backs away, how the ‘half good and half sort of painful’ is there through the whole of Part 2.
In fact, I think the ‘half good and half sort of painful’ is there through all of Part 1, too – which is my central critique of the book. I think Part 2 could have been effectively woven into Part 1, in small chapters – brief glimpses of this backstory, as it unfolds. We see Ben mentioned, in fact, in 31 and again in 44. I would have liked to see more of Ben, his story placed in the middle of all the rest – he’s the first, after all, before 1 and lasting well after 52. He belongs to the whole. I think the story of Ben, broken up and layered between the 52 portraits of Part 1 would have made this an even stronger narrative: an uncomfortable thing, slithering between the stories; a kind of reminder, in the adult stories, that there is something else going on here – a something ‘half good and half sort of painful’. As it is, Part 2 feels like an ‘explanation’, and the book loses its inherent rhythm once we move into the second part. With the story of Ben seen as part of the main text, I think we’d end up with a slow, creeping sense of what’s underneath: All right, I see you.
But that’s just one read, and a note about structure. Louise Wareham Leonard’s book goes a long way to exposing unsettling truths about life and love, and the search for meaning in both. I leave you with one final scene, another hard look at a connection that is in fact a mis-connection. This time, Elise is with Henri, and they argue about whether she will stay the night: ‘Never before have I done battle with a Frenchman. All right, I say, finally. But I will not have sex with you. “Of course,” Henri promises: “I will not touch you.” Early the next morning, I wake up with him having sex with me. I am so angry at this, I start to cry. Then I realise: it’s too late. We can’t go back. We are already having sex. Also – what am I going to do? Scream and ruin the wedding? I give in, then. I join in. Go on, I say to myself. Make it mean something. Make it matter.’
MICHELLE ELVY is a writer, editor and manuscript assessor. She edits at Flash Frontier: An adventure in short fiction, and Blue Five Notebook, and is the founder of National Flash Fiction Day. She is assistant editor, international, of the Best Small Fictions series; other recent projects include Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton) and Voyaging with Kids (L&L Pardey). https://michelleelvy.com/