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The pleasure is all ours

Walter Bernstein is a veteran journalist and screenwriter and the author of "Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist."

The first time I met A.J. Liebling was when I went to work at the New Yorker in 1946, shortly after being discharged from the Army. He did not immediately recognize me as one of the Greatest Generation (I was in civilian clothes), but he knew my work for the magazine and he invited me to lunch. He looked like an owlish Humpty-Dumpty, round in head and body, and he wore round, wire-rimmed eyeglasses and walked pigeon-toed with a kind of dainty deliberation.

At the restaurant, he ordered a martini straight up, and when it came he drank it down without stopping, like a glass of water. I thought this was a considerable achievement, though not one to be emulated. He talked without condescension to an ignorant and younger man -- he was in his 40s, I in my 20s -- about food, wine, medieval literature and boxing, all of which he knew a lot about. I knew something about boxing at least, and, eager to please, I modestly let slip that I had almost been featherweight champion of the Persian Gulf Command, without adding that I was transferred before the championship bout, thus avoiding having my brains beaten in. We agreed that, pound for pound, Sugar Ray Robinson was the best fighter we had ever seen. I listened avidly to everything he said; Liebling was one of the three New Yorker writers I considered invincible. (The other two were Joseph Mitchell and S.J. Perelman.) Reading him again in this new collection, I still think so.

For the New Yorker, Liebling wrote about war, politics, the press, boxing, food, Paris and the seamy side of New York. He wrote with erudition, wit and a delight in language. His work at the magazine stretches from 1935 to 1963, the year he died, and in “Just Enough Liebling” his taste and versatility are well represented. There is a section on eating in Paris; a long section on World War II; articles on the more raffish denizens of Broadway; a wonderful profile of nutty Earl Long, brother of Huey and sometime governor of Louisiana; and the classic essay “Ahab and Nemesis,” about the heavyweight fight between Rocky Marciano and Archie Moore, the best piece on boxing I have ever read. It is quintessential Liebling. Similes abound, as do historical and cultural references, and the prose is both literary and demotic. Moore knocks Marciano down with a punch that should have knocked him out, and Marciano is up again in two seconds.

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“I do not know what took place in Mr. Moore’s breast when he saw him get up,” Liebling writes. “He may have felt, for the moment, like Don Giovanni when the Commendatore’s statue grabbed him -- startled because he thought he had killed the guy already -- or like Ahab when he saw the Whale take down Fedallah, harpoons and all.” His sympathy is with Moore, a courageous and cunning boxer past his prime, but his money is on the crude, relentless, unbeatable Marciano. The heart has its reasons, but you do not place bets on them.

Liebling was attracted to outsiders, the fringe people operating under the radar of polite society. He liked hustlers of all kinds and never looked down on them. He respected craft, whether it was a fighter working his jab or a small-time promoter working a scam. After all, the world is harsh and unforgiving, and even lowlifes have to make a buck. There is a rooted humanism about Liebling’s work, something he probably would have denied; in his world, humanism -- like satire, as the old theatrical saying goes -- is what closes on Saturday night. But it informs what he writes, warming and deepening it. He shares this with his friend Mitchell; it is one of the qualities that raises their work from reporting to art.

And he loved to eat: “The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite. Without this, it is impossible to accumulate

Just one piece in this collection seems at all flat -- an account of a wartime transatlantic voyage on a Norwegian tanker. The trip is too long and too uneventful, the crew too normal. The piece sounds as though it was written by a writer who took the trip and thus felt he had to report on it to keep the franchise. Liebling never considered himself a war correspondent -- only, as David Remnick says in his graceful introduction, “a New York reporter of a particular kind.” Liebling himself once remarked, “There is an old proverb that a girl may sleep with one man without being a trollop, but let a man cover one little war and he is a war correspondent.”

Still, he spent time under fire with American troops in North Africa and later in France and wrote clearheaded and honest reports, not that easy when the pressure is to create heroes. Some of Liebling’s best war stories -- about landing in France on D-day, about the German massacre of a French village -- are missing from this collection, but there is a very good one about a genuine hero, a dead GI everyone called Mollie. Mollie had reputedly been a character -- telling stories about the big shot he was back in New York, operating outside Army rules and getting away with it -- but he died a hero, after single-handedly capturing a couple of hundred enemy soldiers. Intrigued, Liebling set out to discover who Mollie really was, following the trail when he got back to New York. He was moved by what he found: a brave young man with a restless imagination, a talent for fabrication and a romantic sense of himself. “It cheers me to think there may be more like him all around me,” Liebling writes, “a notion I would have dismissed as sheer romanticism before World War II. Cynicism is often the shamefaced product of inexperience.”

Liebling was not cynical: He admired grace and courage as much as he hated cant and cruelty. He wrote a column for the New Yorker called the Wayward Press, in which he took on the vagaries and compromises of contemporary journalism. “Just Enough Liebling” includes some of the pieces eviscerating journalists who tend to come down on all sides of an issue. It does not include his most scathing articles on the cowardice and cupidity of too many newspapers and the press barons who owned them. Remnick wonders what Liebling would have made of today’s equivalent of “the bigotry and jingoism and fakery” he exposed 40 years ago: “It is usually a tiresome exercise to imagine what some departed luminary would make of present-day follies.... With Liebling, however, the temptation is hard to resist, given the range and big-heartedness of his disapprovals. We miss the ferocity of his attack.”

There’s a wonderful pleasure in reading Liebling, and part of that is the pleasure that comes not just from the words but from the writer savoring the people he writes about, the way they talk, how they live. Does he invent a bit when he deals with the riffraff? Remnick raises the question and essentially gives Liebling a pass by separating his “serious” work from the merely colorful. It is a distinction, I think, without a difference. Liebling quotes his favorite character, Col. John R. Stingo, the Honest Rainmaker (so-called because he once bet that he could control the rain during a horse race). “I have three rules for keeping in condition,” the Colonel says. “I will not let guileful women move in on me. I decline all responsibility. And, above all, I avoid all heckling work. Also, I shun exactious luxuries, lest I become their slave.” Did Stingo -- or for that matter any of the trainers, boxers, promoters and scam artists Liebling wrote about with such exuberant affection -- really talk that way? If they didn’t, they should have. “Just Enough Liebling” (the title is a play on “Just Enough Money,” an essay on his dining-out budget in Paris) is a misnomer. There’s never enough. *


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