I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me

Breslin, Jimmy

BOOKS IN REVIEW - "I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me" and it was altogether too bad..." These brief, interminable bits read like Steinbeck attempting Faulkner, to no clear purpose besides a sense of obligation to prevailing trends. Their subjectivity...

...A handful of fine scenes and phrases ("the dark theater full of girls and jazz") can't make up for the effortful bulk of the whole, or for its occasional just plain clumsiness: no one can run down stairs "three at a time...
...Breslin deserves credit for keeping what amounts to his last will and testament short...
...That puts him a cut above Mike Royko, Mike McAlary, and innumerable other big-city columnists named Mike, but a few notches below 1-I.L...
...As he puts it, "You do not need a complex sentence to deliver a complex th ought...
...The Breslin School of Journalism has always been a tight-rope affair, naturally gravitating toward the maudlin, the bathetic, the obvious...
...This would have been a great misfortune, for despite his archaic politics and his mannered tough-guy image, Breslin is one of the finest newspapermen the nation has ever produced...
...That's because they're still living in Queens, where it's a lot harder to be a blue-collar liberal than a journalist living on Central Park West...
...Ycs, if lie can punch...
...Even when they're thinking, Dos Passos's people never seem to stop walking, and their sheer number forces the author to stop and restart his book, over and over, just to keep us cur rent with all of them...
...Their subjectivity ("Camera Eye" is a complete misnomer) only contradicts Dos Passos's basic aim of conveying the roll and sweep of whole decades and continents...
...they brim over with prostitution, adultery, abortion, armpits...
...Dis Ain't Brain Surgery...
...S.A...
...And that is the job description...
...Amen...
...And at great prices...
...Dos Passos declared that "mostly U.S.A...
...Learning years and years later that Dad is in a Miami hospital, Breslin tells a friend to buy blood for his father rather than donating his own...
...Mencken...
...is the speech of the people," and its thousand-plus pages do clang with the sound of them, out on the street and in one another's faces, their group names - Bohunks and Polaks and Shanty Irish-less offensive than the nascent market-tested language of Moorehouse and the PR men...
...Alas, the entire production moves with the curious stasis of a marathon dance...
...Breslin is an inveterate name-dropperJhK,Winston Churchill, Jack Ruby--but these names are worth dropping...
...JOE QUEENAN's latest book is The Unkindest Cut: How a Hatchet Man Critic Made His Own $7,000 Movie and Put It All on His Credit Card (Hyperion...
...loud bawl that you let out for a priest...
...Every tabloid in the country is filled with would-be Breslins, many of them Irish, most of them absolutely terrible...
...I-Ic adds: "The Catholic Church is held together by one word: calamity " The second narrative thread is a meticulous account of his ancuristic adventures, with loving details about having his face peeled back to allow surgical access to his brain...
...A neurosurgeon can attend schools for a decade and learn all of science to do with the brain," he writes...
...A certain shapelessness may be part of the point (these books can no more truly begin or end than a newspaper, or history itself, can), but the protagonists' rushed, episodic adventures weary a reader...
...Henry Ford as an old man I is a passionate antiquarian," the author himself had written in one of the thumbnail biographies...
...The celebrity Spoon River features, among many others, Eugene V. Debs, Isadora Duncan, Joe Hill, Edison, Veblen, and "Meester Veelson," that hero of the Europeans, "talking to save his faith in words, talking to save his faith in the League of Nations, talking to save his faith in himself, in his father's God...
...Breslin is brutal in assessing young reporters, whose idea of covering a story is to do a Nexis search, "Words are best when they have their start amidst the smell of printing," lie says, in the kind of trademark dictum that may or may not be true but certainly sounds good...
...A few hours later, when he learns that his father is out of danger, he sends a telegram: NI':XT TIME KILL YOURSELF...
...I Want to Thank My Brain forRemembering Me has two narrative threads...
...He knows that west of Gotham lie is best known not for two books-'17:e Gang 'l'l:at Couldn't Shoot Straight and Can'tAnyhody Here PlayThis Game-but for the titles of those two books, endlessly recycled by desperate headline writers...
...I-Ie pats himself on the back far too much for a good Irish-Catholic, anyone from our shared tradition learned early in life that self-praise stinks...
...One is the Queens Boy Makes Good, filled with anecdotes about thugs, con men, and people like Ed Koch...
...And there is, of course, the Church...
...I was responsible for Irish names...
...You can fall away from the religion as long as you please, you can deny it through a thousand cock crows, you can luxuriate in sin...
...Will it help...
...its up-to-date look was mostly a jazzy camouflage...
...That's still the skybox seats...
...His reputation will have to content itself with the sort of pro bono resurrection afforded by the Library of America, whose volumes, complete with pagemarking ribbon and rustling paper, have the feel of a missal...
...are 79 The American Spectator . November j996...
...The exception among the "devices" are the thumbnail biographies, both scathing and reverent, of actual figures...
...Breslin has much to answer for...
...But let there be one sharp chest pain, one moment of dizziness, and there is some LL And there is, of course, the Church...
...at various points one senses in Breslin a vulnerability...
...In fact, as he wrote these lines in 1936, Dos Passos had already begun his long journey toward conservatism...
...But let there be one shake of the hand and he is gone and so you...
...here is no such thing as an exCatholic," lie notes...
...These are still well worth readingthough better as a separate collection than interruptions to the narrative...
...The news column is a mixture of reporting and opinion, with heavy dollops of sentimentality about working stiffs, the urban poor, gallant bums, shady pols, and picaresque gangsters, all written in a terse, neo-Hemingway style...
...In subject matter and descriptions, these three novels still display a grit that hasn't fully lost its effect...
...in an age where even the roadie for Led Zeppelin needs 391 pages to tell his story, Breslin comes in at just 219...
...Breslin is also the champion ofa class that has virtually ceased to exist: white, blue-collar liberals...
...But Breslin tells an entirely different kind of story about his father, who abandoned hirn as a boy...
...Nonetheless, it's right to give these three volumes two cheers, if only for the way they remind us of a time when private literary enterprises could be as grandly programmatic as the biggest public-works projects, of an era when the Great American Novel seemed not only achievable but important...
...His art really pointed backwards, to the nineteenth-century novel...
...78 November r 9 9 6 The American Spectator getting more money than any union since the founding of the wire lathers...
...He is not unaware of his influence: "I invented the news column form and other papers immediately went out and hired imitators with Irish names...
...World War I seems to break out a half a dozen times, sacrificing, to say the least, a measure of narrative impact...
...The radical had been feeling prematurely antiCommunist even before the Moscow Trials, and Soviet behavior in the Spanish Civil War only further dampened his leftist ardor...
...By the 196o's he would be pro-Goldwater and writing for National Review, a career turn presented as a form of senility by most literary historians of our time...
...The average tabloid scribe devotes at least one column a year to dear old dad or "What I learned at mother's knee...
...My family were people with winter emotions, who could not use warm, affectionate words," Breslin writes on the very next page...
...fell me about it...
...A fighter blesses himself in the corner," he observes...
...Breslin can still punch...
...77iough Breslin's heart lies in the unglamorous borough of Queens, most of the proles he has been writing about for thirty-four years voted for Meagan...
...Today's readers will be tempted to skip most of the little intersections, the way they do the cetological chapters in Moby-Dick...
...the irony of his own retreat from millenarianism, however principled, could not have been lost on him...
...I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me: A Memoir Jimmy Breslin Little, Brown /.2i9 pages / $22.95 REVIEWED BY Joe Queenan...
...Breslin at his best has managed to avoid the prefabricated mawkishness of his proteges and imitators by maintaining an icy heart beneath his engaging Celtic demeanor...
...Two years ago, Jimmy Breslin nearly died from a brain tumor...
...concludes with a kind of New Masses cartoon: above a lonely hitchhiker some coast-tocoast air passengers "sit pretty," except for one who symbolically "sickens and vomits into the carton container the steak and mushrooms he ate in New York...
...Jimmy Breslin is the most revered living practitioner of an art form he claims to have invented: the news column...
...There is no such thing as an ex Catholic,' Breslin notes...
...In fact, the back of the book is festooned with blurbs from such Breslins manques as the industrious hack Bob Greene, the burned-out sportswriter Mike Lupica, and the most famous faux populist of them all, Pete Hamill, master of such bogus proletarian touches as the undone tie and the rolled-up shirt sleeves...
...Dos Passos won't show a burlesque girl's gams without zeroing in on their vaccination mark...
...In I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me, which is about 70 percent autobiography and 30 percent surgical commentary, Breslin will tell you that himself...
...The series' relative lack of footnotes does suggest a sensible hope that the books will be read instead of studied, but one suspects Dos Passos's will simply be shelved: authentic literary revivals (the sort that that dark horse Dawn Powell is now enjoying) happen less by deliberateness than little accidents of the Zeitgeist...
...But perhaps there is a reason for this autumnal search for approval...

Vol. 29 • November 1996 • No. 11


 
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