I Would Have Saved Them If I Could by Leonard Michaels, book of a lifetime

Michaels' second book, published in 1975, best captures and distils his particular gift, says David Bezmozgis

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When I was 26, finishing a film degree at the University of Southern California, I signed up for the only writing course I've ever taken. The incomparable TC Boyle was the professor and he made a book recommendation that changed my life: I Would Have Saved Them if I Could by Leonard Michaels.

When writing about Leonard Michaels – Lenny to his friends – it's hard for me to isolate any single book as the one that changed my life, rather it is the totality of his work. But if pressed, I'd say that his second book, and second story collection, published in 1975, best captures and distils his particular gift.

Formally, the book almost defies categorisation. It contains some stories that anyone would identify as "stories," but it also contains short fragments that fit together in a sort of expressionistic collage. Their sense derives from emotion, not logic. It contains stories that incorporate elements of the surreal, and others, such as "Murderers", –probably my favourite short story of all time – which are realistic. Still other stories aren't so much stories as peculiar kinds of essays.

The spectre of the Holocaust haunts the book, but only with a kind of furious, fitful implication. To say the stories are about the Holocaust is to mischaracterise them. And yet, in their elliptical way, they could not be more honest and exacting on the subject. Michaels, born in 1933 in New York's Lower East Side, was part of that great generation of Jewish American writers.

Michaels remains the writer I measure myself against; his sentences – models of economy, intelligence and wit – are the ones I try to emulate. I've written about him before. I had the good fortune to know him before his death, to briefly call him a friend. Still when presented with the same question, what can I say if I still have the same answer? The books retain their hold on me.

The stories offered me a certain kind of lesson or promise: aspire to create such things and, should you approach the mark, it will suffice. Fifteen years and three books later, I am the same age Lenny was when he wrote those stories and I now know, as he did, that this is both true and not true. I return to the stories informed by this cruel and vivifying knowledge.

David Bezmozgis's 'The Betrayers' is published by Viking