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Book Review: Reading for My Life

Reading For My Life: Writings 1958-2008

by John Leonard

Viking, 2012

Reading For My Life, this plenteous collection of book reviews by the late John Leonard (who successfully gave himself lung cancer and died of it in 2008), begins with an aphoristic Introduction by E. L. Doctorow, is edited by Leonard’s widow Sue, and concludes with a section called “Writing For His Life” in which various friends and relatives take turns remembering him and the effects he had on their lives. The combination of all these things has the (inadvertent?) result of making the book seem like an extended eulogy, which is something Leonard himself would almost certainly have chuckled at.

The man was a brilliantly unsentimental, encyclopedic hack who could dash off 1200 words on virtually any subject in the world, and he did exactly that for a string of paymasters so long it starts to look ludicrous, ranging from The Village Voice, TV Guide, Vanity Fair and Playboy to The Washington Post, The Nation, Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, and of course The New York Times Book Review, which enjoyed a heyday under his editorship in the 1970s.

As Samuel Johnson (no mean hack himself) once wrote, nobody who writes regularly can avoid developing a style, some signature techniques, and this was certainly true for Leonard. The worst of these techniques of his, by far the laziest and most prone to self-parody, was the long, associative list of … well, ‘allusions’ would be too strong a word, suggesting much deeper thought than was usually present whenever Leonard pulled this stunt … maybe the modern ‘shout-outs’ would be a closer term to these riffs that virtually any prompting could set him riffing. Ironically, toward the end of his life he became lionized for just this little failing, with people (including every single person in the “Writing For His Life” section of this book) calling it ‘inimitable’ as though that were praise. These little blizzards of dropped names could (when he was at least trying to control them) act as garnish for essentially very sound ruminations, as in his piece about Alcohols Anonymous in a review of Nan Robertson’s Getting Better:

Not a weird Druidic cult, nor penal colony, lynching bee, pop-psych seminar, convention of Jesus freaks, or fallout shelter for twitchy bums on their way to cirrhotic seizure, AA is everybody you’ve ever met, trying in small groups to help each other through the night. To qualify for membership, all you have to do is want to stop drinking. In this amazing democracy, with more than its fair share of awful coffee and blue cigarette smoke, people tell stories. These many stories – of joblessness and paranoia, of smashed automobiles and nights in jail, of wife-beating and child abuse, of hallucinations and attempted suicide, of waste and pain and disconnection and the end of love – are really one: of the lost child in the black forest of bad chemicals.

Or they could slip entirely out of his control and become, essentially, gibbersh – as in an infamous passage from his review of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland:

What’s going on? If we put together Shade Creek, flood dreams, technowaves, porpoises, and woge, with Vheissu in V, and the Tristero underground in Crying (clairvoyants, paranoids, outcasts, and squatters swinging in “a web of telephone wires, living in the very copper rigging and secular miracle of communication untroubled by the dumb voltages flickering their miles”) and the “Deathkingdoms” and “death-colonies” Blicero apostrophizes in Gravity’s Rainbow (“waste regions, Kalaharis, lakes so misty they could not see the other side,” Original Sin, Modern Analysis), we end up with something that looks a lot like, if not a comic-book Bardo, then maybe that Buddhist “Global Novel” that Maxine Hong Kingston’s been going on about recently in the pages of Mother Jones and on, gasp, The Tube. For that matter, Zoyd, Prairie, Takeshi, DL, and the Wobblies look a lot like the 108 bandit-heroes of Water Margin, the Chinese Robin Hood Kingston has so much fun with in Tripmaster Monkey.

(As Leonard himself put it, rather damningly, in a fantastic piece on TV in 1997, “But I can shuffle these concepts like a pack of cards and deal out almost any hand I want to. I can toss the cards in the air and assign arbitrary meaning to a random scatter”).

No, we can’t legitimately honor his memory by recalling such empty pyrotechnics, especially when Reading For My Life offers such rich examples of his true strengths, such as the consummate grounding in the real world even his most literate reviews always had, the light way he wore his endless hours of energetic reading on all subjects. He had a way of taking on the big books other critics found intimidating and methodically taking them apart, often dispassionately, to see what made them tick, to lay out in front of himself the bedrock urges that sprang the thing into being in the first place. He found nothing too recondite, and he could not be cowed (he used to say he had more eyes than a housefly, and everything he saw strengthened what he knew). His review of Norman Mailer’s monstrous Harlot’s Ghost, for instance, was the only one in any major journal that pinpointed the book’s key weakness:

If paranoia is our culture’s weather, all that lightning, then Mailer, bless him, puts up a kite instead of an umbrella. But having grown up on him, we already know that we have enemies. It’s harder to amaze us. It’s a tough break for the old exorcist that Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, and Stan Lee in Dunn’s Conundrum have already covered so much of his territory; that Robin Winks has already written his book about Yale and the CIA; that Tom Mangold has just published a biography of James Jesus Angleton; that Robert Gates twists in the Senate wind; that Pete Brewton’s S&L stories, and the magnitude of the BCCI scandal, are so much more fantastic to contemplate than the CIA conspiracy in Harlot’s Ghost to finance itself by cashing in on insider tips when the Federal Reserve Board is about to fiddle with the interest rates. What’s new, Norman?

And though he was generally the most genial of men, when he was roused to passion, his expressions of it were indelible. My personal favorite will always be his response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11, those initial weeks when it must have been very hard indeed to be an embattled old pacifist, full of anger and hurt but no wrath:

There can be no grievance that excuses the killing of innocents, either by terrorism or state violence, its Siamese twin. Any cause that does so is corrupt. The murder of children in Belfast, Sarajevo, Rwanda, Beirut, or anywhere else is beyond extenuation. Some of the West’s best writers, from Dostoevsky and Conrad and Malraux to Mary McCarthy, Heinrich Boll, Doris Lessing, Alberto Moravia, Nadine Gordimer, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, have tried to read the minds of what Don DeLillo in Mao II called “men in small rooms.” All they’ve done is make those minds seem almost as interesting as their own, which of course they aren’t. The kamikazes of Kingdom Come – the skyjackers, land miners, thumb-screwers, militiaman, death squads, and ethnic cleansers; the bombers of department stores, greengrocers, and abortion clinics; the Pol Pots, Shining Paths, and Talibans – have stupefied themselves. To imagine otherwise is to be as ethically idiotic as Karlheinz Stockhausen, the composer who told reporters in Hamburg on September 16 that the destruction of the World Trade Center was “the greatest work of art ever.”

Reading For My Life has many, many memorable high points like that. It feels very strange, still, not to have John Leonard’s voice still going strong in the back-of-the-issue book pages of all the nation’s magazines, but this anthology is some consolation at least.