07 November 2008

John Leonard (1939-2008)


What I look for and care about in these various bunkers is the slice of the strange, the surprise of the Other, the witness not yet heard from, the archaeologies forgotten or ignored or despised. What I think about almost anything, from Henry Kissinger to Deng Xiaoping, from the doctrine of transubstantiation to the theory of surplus value to a tax on capital gains, from Murphy Brown to Thelma and Louise to Jelly's Last Jam, is a mess of juxtapositions, miscegenations, transplants and hybrids, atavisms and avatars, landlords and tenants, ghosts and gods; grace-notes and cognitive dissonance -- Chaos Theory, with lots of fractals.

--introduction to The Last Innocent White Man in America


Isn't it kind of stuck-up, wanting to live forever?

--"Tropic of Cancer"
All through my teen years, if I happened to sleep past 9 am, one of my parents would yell, "John Leonard's on!" and I would be awake and rushing downstairs to see the brief segment of "CBS Sunday Morning" where my oracle would hold court. I still have the old videotape on which I recorded all of the John Leonard segments that I could capture when the machine was cooperating. The weeks when he was on vacation or otherwise mysteriously absent were weeks of disappointment, because nobody else could chew on a sentence the way John Leonard did, and nobody else had such marvelous sentences to chew on.

And yes, now we speak of him in the past tense.

It's barely hyperbole to say that John Leonard taught me everything I know. I discovered him at one of the most impressionable times in my life, and he opened up a world of contemporary literature for me. I remember buying The Last Innocent White Man in America at (the late, lamented) Wordsworth Books in Cambridge, MA after it was mentioned on "Sunday Morning" -- I remember because it had never occurred to me that John Leonard might have written something somewhere, or that he did things other than offer televised wisdom once a week. The first half of the book is mostly about American politics (Reagan and Bush 1, Mike Dukakis and Jesse Jackson, Pat Buchanan and David Duke), and I found it strange and fascinating and more than a little disturbing, because I had only begun to escape from the knees of conservative jerks, only begun to realize there are other things to worry about than if the Russians will confiscate all our guns. I hardly even knew how to read paragraphs like this:
To get our minds off the war, we thought about the Big Bang and we went to a farce. We also went to protest rallies, but they don't count. After each protest rally, the crazy generals on the networks explain that our qualms, which shouldn't have launched in the first place becaue the New World Order has argument superiority, were shot down anyway, by anti-qualm Patriot absolutes. In my living room, I'm beginning to think I need a gas mask.
I learned to read his rhythms, though, and they soon infiltrated my own -- the writer I have had to work hardest to exorcise from my own words is John Leonard, and there are moments in conversation still when I will insert a Leonardism ("atavisms and avatars", "Chaos Theory -- with lots of fractals", "a zap to the synaptic cleft", "In the library, that secretariat of dissidents, they don't lie to me" -- and those are just from one particularly influential page!). Because I first got to know him via the TV, Leonard's voice is always there in my head with his words. It is a perfect voice, with a perfect sense of timing, one I'd even take over Dylan Thomas, who stole the voice of God. John Leonard didn't need to steal God's voice, he'd made his own, scarred by cigarettes and alcohols, halfway between a songbird and Tom Waits.

I've never stopped reading John Leonard, and I thought he was the perfect replacement for Guy Davenport as the regular reviewer at Harper's each month -- it was always the first page I turned to when the new issue arrived.

He seemed to have read everything, and that seeming burst into his style, one rich with bursting sentences -- just consider the title of my favorite of his collections: When the Kissing Had to Stop: Cult Studs, Khmer Newts, Langley Spooks, Techno-Geeks, Video Drones, Author Gods, Serial Killers, Vampire Media, Alien Sperm-Suckers, Satanic Therapists, and Those of Us Who Hold a Left-Wing Grudge in the Post Toasties New World Hip-Hop. I think my passion for minimalism comes from having overdosed on Leonard when I was young -- nobody else afterward ever seemed to fill up a page with quite the same panache.

Robert Christgau got at all this well at the end of a review of When the Kissing Had to Stop, and noted some of Leonard's blindspots and weaknesses along the way:
Novel lovers of every birthdate share his disdain for the Poisoned Twinkies. But when his essay on the cyberpunks, whom he's sci-fi enough to enjoy, ends by suggesting they read Toni Morrison, fight Viacom, and help the homeless, the burnt-rubber smell of '60s self-righteousness spinning its wheels leaves one to conclude that his sniping at sitcoms in general and Seinfeld in particular has nothing to do with art. And hey, he's not to be trusted on popular music either. But without him I would never have gotten the dirt on James Jesus Angleton, discovered Mating, or had the chance to opine that Monnew is twice the formal achievement Beloved is. Really, who has the time? Somehow John Leonard does. Then he comes downstairs and tells us about it.
Of course, I didn't always agree with what he told us, but I wouldn't trust a critic I always agreed with (that's not a critic, it's a stalker). It didn't matter, really. I agreed enough to have discovered books and movies and political opinions I came to cherish (indeed, like Christgau, I discovered Mating via Leonard, and still think it's among the best novels I've ever read). Through his wide-ranging enthusiasms, I learned about Manhattan and Nicaragua and Africa long before my feet ever inched near those parts of the world. I discovered writers whose names I couldn't pronounce and books that hardly seemed written in English, but I always kept at these things because John Leonard had found something good in them.

Somewhere around ten years ago, I got a glorious Christmas present: a signed copy of Leonard's Private Lives in the Imperial City, a collection of short essays on daily life that he wrote for the New York Times. It's a book I cherish, and not just because he wrote his own name in it. It's full of wit and wonder, and it contains one essay, "A Victim of Surprises" that seems to me about as perfect as Virginia Woolf's "The Death of the Moth", but funnier:
Surprise! It was a birthday party, and we therefore behaved like trombones, and the victim was pleased, and the tears fell like dimes, and I looked at the ceiling, which is where I always look when the spy business takes me to the vital and dangerous Upper West Side of the imperial city. Such high ceilings they have on the Upper West Side, as if to accommodate eagles or bats. And yet the people who live under these high ceilings do not, on the whole, seem bigger than the people who live elsewhere in New York, perhaps because they eat so much Chinese food. Considering the housing shortage, maybe we should partition along the perpendicular, or turn all these old buildings on their ears. Turning them on their ears, of course, would block traffic, and that would be a good thing, too. Traffic frightens the eagles.
And then there are all the short reviews collected in his 1973 collection This Pen for Hire, in which he started with a quote from Nietzsche: "Insects sting not in malice, but because they want to live. It is the same with critics: they desire our blood, not our pain" and continued on to muse about the perils of the 800-word review:
Thus the book reviewer develops an 800-word mind, which comes in handy at literary cocktail parties and symposia on The Sclerosis of Modernism. One quarter of those words are adjectives. Anybody, stinging a book about the ears and ankles, can suck out enough ink to fill up three quarters of a column, but the professional book reviewer lives and dies by his repertoire of adjectives. ...

Not wanting to appear a jerk, the reviewer starts using adjectives like "solipsistic", "dodecahedral", and "prelapsarian". Unfortunately, out of the some 20,000 new books published each year in the United States -- of which a daily paper can review perhaps 450 -- only about three will be in any way solipsistic, dodecahedral, or prelapsarian. For that matter, only about two will be superb, compelling, explosive, or exquisite.
And then, twenty pages later, he gives us one of my favorite first-sentences to any review -- this one a review of Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City--
On finishing this book, you want to go out and get drunk.
(Perhaps it was too much Lessing that led Leonard to AA.)

Once, I sent him a fan letter. I've hardly ever sent any fan letters in my life, not because I'm not a fan of many people and many things, but because when I gush I sound like a Valley Girl, and my dignity can only bear it occasionally. But at some point or another I felt the need to let John Leonard know that I was the lost child of his sentences. He never wrote back or signed the adoption papers, but I didn't necessarily want him to -- a fan letter is not an invitation to correspondance, but a proclamation of joy, and once I finished proclaiming, I'd done what I needed to do. I imagined him going to soirees and hanging out with the literati, with Don DeLillo on speed dial and Salman Rushdie hiding in his basement. I imagined he might be amused for a moment to learn that a kid in the middle of nowhere heard his voice crying out in the wilderness and found comfort and inspiration in it, and I imagined he would toss the letter away and chuckle for a moment and then go back to sharing a smoke with the latest Nobel winner (if he even read the letter himself; I imagined he had hordes of assistants). Though now, in my cynical old age, I know John Leonard's life was probably a bit more prosaic than I imagined when I was young, I still like the fantasy, and I hold onto it along with the atavisms and avatars, the Chaos Theory and fractals, the library and its dissidents. One of the dissidents has left, but, as a bit of consolation, we get to keep his books.

4 comments:

  1. Leonard's death is terribly sad. Like you, I turned first to his column in Harper's, and from a fairly early age I fell in love with his Private Lives book. His Imperial City was how I imagined grownup life to be.

    Now I'll have to think of a new answer if someone ever asks me about my favorite living critic. Michael Dirda, step right up and accept this insignificant honor . . . unless John Clute beats you to the stage.

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  2. My family house-sat for Leonard in '79 (and he gave us a signed copy of Private Lives..., come to think of it). I was much too young to know anything about who he was at that point, but my father remembers lugging in the mailsacks full of review copies, almost all of them unbelievable trash. The life of a book review editor was clearly not a happy one! IIRC, I first started reading Leonard's essays when I was in college ("hey, didn't we house-sit for this guy?"), and kept up with him from there.

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  3. Leonard's son Andrew, who writes for Salon, just posted a piece about his father and the election and about being a writer as his father's son. It's a bit scattershot, as you'd expect under the circumstances, but worth a read.

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