Wednesday, May 16, 2012

`One of the Wittiest American Writers of His Day'

I have just reread The Earl of Louisiana (1961) for, I think, the twenty-third time and it’s not even my favorite A.J. Liebling, which might be Normandy Revisited (1958), or Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962) or The Sweet Science (1956). I’ve known reporters and editors who knew Liebling strictly as a press critic and at least one restaurant critic who thought he was a “foodie” (hideous baby talk), but Liebling was a man of many pleasures who followed them. As a writer he ranks not among the kvetchers but the celebrators, and he left us some of the best prose ever written by an American.

The Earl of Louisiana is the ringer among Liebling’s books because it has some academic following despite being so well written. I’ve read treatments of it as a solemn study of early Civil Rights Era politics in the South, when in fact Earl Long is Colonel Stingo, Whitey Bimstein or Izzy Yereshevsky (other Liebling heroes) transported south of the Mason-Dixon Line. In his introduction to the updated edition put out by Louisiana State University Press in 2008, Jonathan Yardley tells us The Earl, unlike Liebling’s other titles, has remained in print since first published more than half a century ago. Yardley rightly notes it is “indeed a classic, not merely in one category but three: the literature of American politics, the literature of Louisiana, and the oeuvre of A.J. Liebling.” He describes the prose as "lively, insouciant, luxuriant." Here is a sample chosen almost at random, from Liebling’s portrait of a bit player in the book, Curley, once a boxer, now a bookmaker in Jefferson Parish:

“Curley is a barrel of a man, an old lightweight who never got anywhere and is now unregenerately fat. Men like him are more sentimental about the game than ex-champions, who are often bitter about managers who stole their money. The never-was is less neurotic than the has-been.” 

Funny? Of course, and now we can add “Curley” to our list of synonyms for the terminally forgettable and, we hope, forgotten (Billy Collins, anyone? Ann Beattie? ) Yardley performs another service for Liebling’s admirers, one I’ve never before seen in print. In 1980, Raymond Sokolov published Wayward Reporter, the first and thus far only biography of Liebling. I bought it when it came out and have reread it a number of times, knowing it’s a tiresome book – an extraordinary accomplishment, if you think about it: a dull volume about a supernally exciting writer. Some of the facts are there, and the late Joseph Mitchell, Liebling’s closest friend, agreed to speak with Sokolov, but the resulting book is a desultory sketch of a life, not a life. Yardley writes:

“It is unfortunate that what is likely to remain the only full biography of Liebling…is dutiful and earnest but humorless; Liebling was one of the wittiest American writers of his day, but little of this comes across in Sokolov’s account. Still, it is useful for the bare facts.”

In other words, go first to the holy writ and only later consult the exegesist. In various editions and with some overlap among them, twenty-seven volumes by Liebling sit on my shelves. His only heavyweight contenders in my library are Chekhov and Guy Davenport.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Joseph Epstein has a short essay praising Liebling (the "Minnesota Fats of American Prose") in his collection of essays on American prose, Plausible Prejudices. In the same collection is another essay about the cheerless prose of Ann Beattie.

For purposes of full disclosure, I have never read anything by Ann Beattie, but have read A. J. Liebling over the last twenty years.