Saturday, January 14, 2006

Book 2: New Yorker writers (1)

Just Enough Liebling: Classic Work by the Legendary New Yorker Writer by A. J. Liebling
Pbk., North Point Press, New York, 2005

Years ago I housesat for a friend who had a large creaky house by the sea. The house was old, and it felt as if the deep grey shades of her parents shimmered in smears along the upstairs hallway. What should have been a mildly unpleasant stay was made joyous by a dog-eared book that I found on top of the toilet tank on the second floor: New Yorker cartoons from the 20s, 30s, and 40s. I’m pretty keen on the New Yorker, and a sucker for nostalgia, so those endless bartender and battle-axe wife gags utterly charmed me. And this got me to wondering, what was the writing in the magazine I read today, like then? I bought Janet Flanner’s Paris Was Yesterday but filed the project away.

I’m picking up that thread with this book, and hopefully I can track Flanner down again, too. Last year I read Hendrik Hertzberg’s Politics, with its meditations on the landscape from 1966 to 2004, and enjoyed the concise evocation of New York from the 70s with his meditation on the creation of the Daily News line: “Ford to City, Drop Dead.”

Leibling is of an entirely different cut, and he wrote in one of the many golden ages of the magazine, between 1935 and 1963. He pieces were long and conversational, and read like the Talk of the Town. He was captivated by France, food, sport, and shady characters. When a Colonel Stingo or a Private Mollie hove into view Liebling was on the case, and willing to spend whatever time it took to tease out the story.

All of the pieces were great, but not all of his journalism captivated me: his food writing, while beautifully wrought, evoked place so much better than the plates, and his war writing seemed to amble a little. But part of this is context: as the long piece in a magazine these pieces would have a different impact as they do between the covers of a book. It’s like a dinner of nothing but main courses.

Amongst the beef and roast chicken was one of the best pieces I have ever read - up there with Borges’ Garden of the Forking Paths. In 1938 Liebling camped out at the Jollity Building, a six-story anthill of grifters, heels, and small-time talent agents in the high 40s on Broadway. He talked to and befriended everyone he could - Barney, the lunch counter guy; Morty Ormont the building manager; Acid Test Ike, a bouncer for the club on the second floor, and small-time boxing manager. And these people spun out tales of the other characters in the building. The Jollity was a most Darwinian world. Everyone is in a constant state of want, living from grift to grift, gobbling pastrami sandwiches at the lunch counter and dashing, and avoiding Morty at all costs. Leibling reports that it takes Morty four calls on average to collect his monthly rent, and Barney keeps an eye on his customers over his shoulder when he’s pouring coffee. And when a resident comes into a few dollars a game of rummy, or a bad tip played with one of the ever-present bookmakers, is sufficient to reduce the man back down to the building’s ground state.

The building is stratified: at the bottom, in the lobby, are the “Phonebooth Indians” who run businesses from the payphone booths. There are fewer indians than there are booths, so a complex series of negotiations with their fellows is required to secure their place. At the top of the heap, in the offices, is the Count - Count de Pennies - a man with a superior plan who preys mainly on the nightclub owners and the bookies.

This is a thick book, full of Sugar Ray fights, wartime crossings of the Atlantic on rusty Norwegian tankers, and dead media titans, but it is a book I was glad to pick up. And if this volume is any indication, my project will be a pleasant one.


Blogger Olman Feelyus said...

I'm impressed that you read this book straight through. That takes some discipline. I don't think I'll ever do that, but I would love to read that Jollity piece. That sounds amazing. Even if it wasn't well done, what great subject matter! Great review.

5:00 PM  
Blogger Lantzvillager said...

Excellent review. I'm just starting the 2nd year of having a New Yorker subscription and while I'm sure the writing no where approaches the level of these essays, I enjoy reading it.

6:25 PM  
Blogger Crumbolst said...

I used to read essays from New Yorker writers when I was working in a dying bookstore in NY (I wonder if it's the same volume/edition). I found I could get through one or two pieces per evening without much interruption. I remember really enjoying the styles of many of the writers, but not so much their values, if you know what I mean. Not my kind of people.

Your review is really well done.

6:51 PM  

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