John Leonard Taught Me to Write

kissing John Leonard Taught Me to WriteEverybody learns to write by ripping off their heroes. I learned to write reviews by ripping off John Leonard, who died last night. I still carry his books around and study them on long subway rides, like Orthodox Jews with their miniature copies of the Torah. I got pretty good at aping his funny, involuted sentence structure, his bright, unsettling vocabulary, and Google helped me pretend I was sort of as smart; but as much as I write and however long I live, I’ll never in print equal his warmth, his decency, his willingness to draw ethical lines and then not cross them, his talent for rubbing this book against that one to see what electricity popped out.

His resume will, of course, be well-covered in the obituaries: he appeared on CBS Sunday Morning and reviewed television for New York and books for The Nation, The New York Review of Books, Harper’s and the Times. He filled so many column inches for so many different outlets that he sometimes repeated his references and quips. You’d go crazy counting up the mentions of Shane or trying to figure out how many times he alluded to the joke about Tonto and the Lone Ranger, surrounded by an Indian war party, outnumbered, totally screwed, a blaze of glory their best and only option, the punchline of which is: "What do you mean we, white man?"

If this were a Leonard-penned obit, he’d wish the departed bon voyage while listing their every possible destination: the rush-covered islands of Aaru, the grey, weird plains of Elysium, the undescribed sheol, the dance hall of Valhalla, the animistic paradise as plentiful as a supermarket, the luminous cumulus-covered angel-thronged heaven, the next stop in samsara as a dog, dragonfly or the doctor their parents secretly hoped for. I don’t know whether John Leonard really wanted to come back to earth or persist eternally or provide a perfect feast for beetles and worms, although this paragraph, from his review of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking probably gives it all away:

"If Joan Didion went crazy, what are the chances for the rest of us? Not so good, except that we have her example to instruct us and sentences we can almost sing. Look, no one wants to hear about it, your death, mine, or his. What, as they listen, are they supposed to do with their feet, eyes, hands, and tongue, not to mention their panic? If they do want to hear about it—the grief performers, the exhibitionists of bathetic wallow, the prurient ghouls—you don’t want to know them. And maybe craziness is the only appropriate behavior in front of a fact to which we can’t ascribe a meaning. But since William Blake’s Nobodaddy will come after all of us, I can’t think of a book we need more than hers—those of us for whom this life is it, these moments all the more precious because they are numbered, after which a blinking out as the black accident rolls on in particles or waves; those of us who have spent our own time in the metropolitan hospital Death Care precincts, wondering why they make it so hard to follow the blue stripe to the PET scan, especially since we would really prefer never to arrive, to remain undisclosed; those of us who sit there with Didion in our laps at the oncologist’s cheery office, waiting for our fix of docetaxel, irinotecan, and dexamethasone, wanting more Bach and sunsets."

But it would be too depressing to end with that and he was too joyful a reader, too wild a writer. Instead, I’ll offer one of the many other passages of his I loved. He wrote it about Elizabeth Hardwick, but it applies equally to him:

"So superior are these sentences to the churlishness that passes for criticism elsewhere in our culture—the exorcism, the vampire bite, the vanity production, the body-snatching and the sperm-sucking by pomo aliens—so generous and wise, that they seem to belong to an entirely different realm of discourse, where the liberal arts meet something like transubstantiation. There will be no dagger at the end of this paragraph. She sends up kites; she catches lightning."