Sunday, March 04, 2018

`A Clean Strike Every Time'

“The Colonel has always believed that fortune swims, not with the main stream of letters, but in the shallows where the suckers moon.”

This sucker visited Kaboom Books on Saturday and netted fortune. First, Swift’s Complete Poems (Yale University Press, 1983) edited by Pat Rogers. After I recommended the Penguin reprint of the book, a reader expressed interest and I gave it to him. Eight years later, the hole is plugged. Here is an old favorite, “The Place of the Damned” (1731):

“All folks, who pretend to religion and grace,
Allow there’s a Hell, but dispute of the place:
But, if Hell may by logical rules be defin’d
The place of the damn’d — I'll tell you my mind.
Wherever the damn’d do chiefly abound,
Most certainly there is Hell to be found:
Damn’d poets, damn’d criticks, damn’d blockheads, damn’d knaves,
Damn’d senators brib’d, damn’d prostitute slaves;
Damn’d lawyers and judges, damn’d lords and damn’d squires;
Damn’d spies and informers, damn’d friends, and damn’d liars;
Damn’d villains, corrupted in every station;
Damn’d timeserving priests all over the nation;
And into the bargain I'll readily give you
Damn’d ignorant prelates and counsellors privy.
Then let us no longer by parsons be flamm’d,
For we know by these marks the place of the damn’d:
And Hell to be sure is at Paris or Rome.
How happy for us that it is not at home!”

Rogers notes that “flamm’d” means “deceived by a sham story.” The OED confirms the word is related to our modern “flim-flam” – humbug or a confidence trick. Swift’s savage grace with words is nicely captured in a passage from the other book I found at Kaboom: “His sentences soar like laminated boomerangs, luring the reader’s eye until they swoop in and dart across the mind like bright-eyed hummingbirds, for a clean strike every time.” You’ll find that in The Honest Rainmaker (Doubleday & Co., 1953) by A.J. Liebling. I’ve been reading and collecting Liebling’s books for about forty years, and this is my fourth first edition. The Library of America, when it published Liebling in two volumes, chose to leave out The Honest Rainmaker (and The Second City), which is a shame. Liebling devotes the entire book to the renowned flim-flam man James A. Macdonald, aka Colonel John R. Stingo, a New York racing writer who worked for the precursor of The National Enquirer. Stingo, for the uninitiated, is an old English word for “strong ale or beer,” and came to mean “vigour, energy, vim” (OED). The sentence at the top is from The Honest Rainmaker, as is this, which Liebling consigns to a footnote:

“The way to write is well, and how is your own business. Nothing else on the subject makes sense.”

1 comment:

mike zim said...

Your Honest Rainmaker mention prompted a reading Liebling's splendid 9/27/52 New Yorker profile of the gaudy, quotable Stingo/MacDonald.
Two highlights:
---My night of revel Babylonian.
---The Colonel, who is now 78, has three explanation for his longevity: "I will not let guileful women move in on me: I decline all responsibility. And, above all, I avoid all heckling work."