Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008 by John Leonard

Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008 BY John Leonard. edited by E. L. Doctorow. Viking Adult. Hardcover, 400 pages. $35.
The cover of Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008

John Leonard wrote four novels, although, as he put it, “the public has a way of letting you know that it will pay more for you to discover and to celebrate excellence in other people, and rather less for your own refined feelings.” He was, in other words, better known as a critic than as a novelist, but his lavish, quicksilver reviews are great precisely because they are infused with those refined feelings. Leonard wrote for numerous publications, including The Nation, Harper’s, and The Atlantic, and appeared on NPR and CBS’s Sunday Morning. He was the editor of the New York Times Book Review in the early ’70s, and contributed reviews to the paper for many years afterward. In his later career, he was the television critic for New York magazine. I watched very few of the shows he reviewed, but I read him every week, simply for the mind-popping associations and feats of prosody daring.

He died from lung cancer at the age of sixty-nine in 2008, the day after Election Day. Now, many of his spiraling, ecstatic essays have been assembled in an excellent collection, a greatest hits of glossolalia. Oh, to be together again with his spring-loaded compound modifiers (the “tone-deaf, anal-retentive, body-bag establishment”), his dizzying flurries of allusion, and the unapologetic tumult of politics, passion, and statistics. (Not to mention the tricks he does with the semi-colon). Town crier, troubadour, and street preacher—Leonard managed to be all at once. With him, a single sentence could turn into a high-wire act. From a paragraph on the short-lived TV series The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd: “You’d never catch her in silk jacquards, tapered Lord & Taylor tunics, tobacco-suede Euforia boots, and Lady Datejust Oyster Perpetuals, eating steamed skate and pumpkin seeds on Columbus Avenue, smelling like the guts of a sperm whale.” Even if you don’t quite know what you just read, it’s still a good ride.

There’s a time-travel charge to experiencing Leonard “thinking out loud” now about books that weren’t well established in the literary landscape back when he was on deadline. From 1970: “A cathedral of words, perceptions, and details that amounts to the declaration of a state of mind” (Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude). From 1987: “As bad as he is on sex, he’s terrific on money and hangovers and . . . shoes” (Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities). And a year later: “Out of gnarled speech, funny, vulgar, gnomic, he composes stunning cantatas for the damned to sing” (Don Delillo’s Libra). There’s also Leonard on E. L. Doctorow, Toni Morrison, Vaclav Havel, Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Said, Philip Roth, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Peggy Noonan, to name just some of the highlights.

In the book’s final chapter, his wife Sue (who co-edited The Nation’s literary section with John) has compiled a series of remembrances from family and friends, including his son Andrew (also a writer), who contributes a heartfelt computer analysis of his father’s essential lexicon (e.g., tantrum, cathedral, linoleum, thug, splendid). Andrew also notes that his father did not like to pan, that he “lived to exalt, to spread the dazzle.” Which is not to say he ever gave anyone a free pass, least of all Richard Nixon, Bill Ayers, or Bob Dylan.

A sense of requiem frames the collection, beginning with “The Demise of Greenwich Village” and “Epitaph for the Beat Generation,” and ending with a review of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I remember reading Leonard’s review of Didion’s memoir when it came out in 2005, especially the feeling he had for her, a “fellow westerner,” that “tarmac woman,” and how he traced the Cessnas in her “postcolonial NAFTA novels.” But I had forgotten the essay’s final line, forgotten how strong the punch was back when he was alive, and I was not prepared for its reverberation now. (To quote it here feels like cheating the rest of the review.)

It may be crass to elevate one essay above the rest, but in the spirit of Leonardian exaltation and exhortation, I submit the 1992 bravura “Ed Sullivan Died for Our Sins” and implore the new-platform visionaries and Longreads impresarios out there to reissue it in some downloadble, shareable form as soon as possible. (Maybe even package it with Kenneth Tynan’s New Yorker profile of Johnny Carson, if you’re feeling expansive.) “[A]s choral as it’s cinematic”: that’s Leonard writing about Libra, and it applies here too. The piece is twenty pages that read like deleted scenes from the film noir classic Sweet Smell of Success. There’s Ed Sullivan getting dressed in his six-room suite at the Delmonico Hotel, carrying his garment bag to the studio, taking belladonna in his dressing room, and flushing Walter Winchell’s head in the urinal at The Stork Club, It’s a paean to the “one-man cable television system,” a history of New York entertainment, American spectatorship, television itself, that “timeline of our secret lives,” and even, just glancingly, a glimpse of the writer, too, a yearning boy in front of a “tiny flickering screen” in Long Beach, California, who went far.

Liz Brown’s writing has appeared in the London Review of Books, Los Angeles Times, and the Paris Review Daily. She teaches in the International Center of Photography/Bard College MFA Program in Advanced Photographic Studies.