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Mr. Westlake, Mr. Breslin and the ‘feud’ that couldn’t shoot straight.

My much-valued friend, Dr. Barnard, now Bishop of Killaloe, having once expressed to him an apprehension, that if he should visit Ireland he might treat that people of that country more unfavourably than he had done the Scotch, he answered, with strong pointed double-edged wit, ‘Sir, you have no reason to be afraid of me.  The Irish are not in a conspiracy to cheat the world by false representations of the merits of their countrymen.  No, sir; the Irish are a FAIR PEOPLE; they never speak well of one another.’

From Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Six feet four inches tail [sic], Hugh Van Dinast was at forty-three utterly the patrician New York type in appearance.  His hair was thin and sandy, his eyes mild and blue and somewhat watery, his nose unobtrusive, his mouth broad and made for easy smiling, his chin slightly recessive, his body built for the uniform of a palace guard.  His accent seemed British to most Americans but other New Yorkers recognized it at once and bridled at it.  One assumed he would spend his evenings swapping condescending remarks with William F. Buckley and George Plimpton, though in fact his acquaintanceship with those two gentlemen was slight, and he much preferred the books of Gore Vidal.  (Seeing him with Jimmy Breslin, as one on occasion well might have done, they being in approximately the same vocation, was to undergo a strangely Kiplingesque echo; for if that wasn’t the Colonel with his loyal Master Sergeant, there is no such thing.)

From Dancing Aztecs, 1977. 

He fears the lancet of my art as I fear that of his.  The cold steelpen.

James Joyce

Jimmy Breslin, dead at 88.  So read the Sunday headlines, and though his rather improbable longevity softens the blow, it’s still a lot to swallow.  I’m not exactly in the pink of youth myself, and to me it seemed like he’d always been there, an illusion not dispelled by a satiric article I read once (can’t find it now) that imagined how the chariot race in Ben Hur would be covered by various well-known journalistic voices.  A parody of Breslin’s reportorial style has him not bothering to talk to Mr. Hur or any of the other bigwigs; he’s down in the stables, interviewing a disgruntled groom,  who concludes the piece with the words “Quit that!  Motherfucking horse!”  (I may not have gotten that quote exactly right.  Neither did Breslin, a lot of the time.)

When James Garner died, you may recall, I did a sort of obit for him here at TWR, including words of glowing praise for The Rockford Files that Westlake had written years before.  “Hey, did Westlake ever say anything really nice about Jimmy Breslin?” read the words in the thought balloon over my misshapen head.  And of course he didn’t.  See the above quote from Dr. Johnson, who knew his stuff where us micks are concerned.

Okay, it’s not an absolute hard and fast rule that we diss each other in public (and ten times worse in private; the venerable Gaelic tradition of back-biting).  But by and large, it’s pretty reliable, at least under certain conditions.  I don’t know if Yeats’ famous explanation for this cannibalistic trait of ours applies quite so well to those of us born over this side of the pond, but “Much hatred, little room” could certainly be said to describe the Gotham Irish at odd moments, and the less assimilated we are, the more true it holds.

The other quote up top, from Dancing Aztecs, is the only time Westlake seems to have ever mentioned Breslin in his fiction, and it’s not exactly a diss, but it’s not what you’d call a glowing compliment either, is it?  WASP aristocratic old moneyed political science professor Hugh Van Dinast is by far the most contemptible character in that labyrinthine comic narrative; a shallow silly-ass pseudo-ineffectual (I did that on purpose), and would-be rapist of the female lead, who happily escapes his lecherous designs to the waiting arms of the proletarian male lead, and I’d assume Breslin would only approve of that.

Westlake says they share a vocation, Van Dinast and Breslin, which is stretching a mighty thin point, since Breslin wasn’t ever a Political Science prof. that I know of.  Okay, they both publish books and articles.  That’s Westlake’s vocation too.  What’s he saying?  Maybe that Breslin often rubbed elbows with his social betters in private, even while he played the working class hero in public. Which I suppose is true, but you could call that research, I guess. It’s at most a glancing blow, playful, with little in the way of ill intent behind it, but still a mite head-scratching, no?  Where did it come from?  I don’t know.

It just so happened that 1976, the year of Dancing Aztecs, came just before The Summer of Sam, which catapulted the already successful Breslin to new heights of what you’d kind of have to call infamy (that’s when he got the beer commercial).  To say, as some have, that he was the first to give notorious murderers a public forum that might encourage others to try mayhem as a means to fame is kind of forgetting Jack the Ripper’s letters to the press that were widely published while he was still out there butchering, and a case could be made for Truman Capote, but there’s a lot of false attributions like that connected to Breslin.  I often think nobody ever did anything first.

But what Westlake would have taken out of that whole thing was that this was a tireless self-promoter, who probably didn’t even consider just turning the letters over to the cops, giving up the scoop Berkowitz had handed him, and too frequently doing just precisely what we know (from I Gave At The Office, and later on, the Weekly Galaxy stories) Westlake thought journalists should not be doing–not just reporting the news, but making it, getting involved in it.  Westlake himself never seems to have sought celebrity, in its own right.  He liked to be just beneath the radar.  Breslin, a different kind of writer, thought he was the radar.  He was occasionally right about that.

Cut ahead a few more years, to 1984. Westlake published one of his best comic novels, the shamefully out-of-print A Likely Story, and as you should already know, that is one of the most epic exercises in literary name-dropping ever printed.  The protagonist, aiming to put together an anthology of Yuletide-related articles, sends letters of solicitation to just about every famous name out there, and gets answers from many.  Guess who didn’t get a solicitation letter?

Now Westlake wasn’t necessarily a fan of every screwy scribbler he referenced in that book, but he certainly admired many of them (and made fun of them anyway because that’s what writers do), but seriously, Breslin would have been a natural for The Christmas Book, no easier style to lampoon, and he’s not even mentioned as a potential prospect.  What gives?  Again, not the foggiest.

Let’s drop back a few years, to 1969.  The year The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight came out.  Several years after Westlake had established himself as the King of Comic Crime, and mere months before the debut of John Dortmunder.  Did Westlake think Breslin was copying off his paper, stealing his thunder?  Doubtful.  He knew very well he hadn’t invented that kind of storytelling.

Did Westlake think Breslin was getting more attention for something he did much better purely on the basis of being a guy who wrote about real crime for the papers? Getting warmer, but far as I can tell, Breslin didn’t make the best-seller lists either that time, though his book sold well, and got a movie deal, as Westlake’s own much less violent comic crime novels had often done. (And the movie sucked, as ditto, though Bob De Niro was certainly better casting than Bob Redford).

The Times review described Mr. Breslin’s first foray into (admitted) fiction as ‘Neo-Runyonesque’, made reference to Fellini’s Big Deal On Madonna Street, and said maybe Breslin needed to work harder on the next novel (and so he did; Table Money is a damn good kitchen table melodrama about an Irish American family of sandhogs, and he manages to avoid a lot of his usual stylistic excesses in it).  That ‘Neo-Runyonesque’ label kind of stuck, though, as we’ll see.

Jumping ahead to September 16, 1988, there’s an article in the Times on that late great institution, New York is Book Country.  One of many beautiful things killed by terrorism and its intended results.  We learn that Westlake would be one of the writers (including Isaac Asimov, but he was everywhere), manning street booths where they’d be making with the autographs, and that later there’d be an auction where one of the items on the block would be your right to have a character in an upcoming Westlake mystery novel named after you.  I’m going to guess Sacred Monster, based purely on the fact that it’s the only novel Westlake had out in 1989.  I wonder who the lucky winner was, and under what circumstances he and/or she got killed and/or fucked?

Meanwhile, over the the Park Lane Hotel (toney!), Breslin was reading from his work over tea and scones, along with Barbara Tuchman and Toni Morrison (tonier!).  Also someone named Cleveland Amory. I should know who that is, right?  What I do know is that Jimmy Breslin was a lot more famous than Donald E. Westlake in 1988, and probably every other year they shared a planet.  He was more than a writer, a newspaperman, a local character–he was a celebrity.  And how did Donald E. Westlake tend to feel about celebrities?  Sacred Monsters indeed.

Let me take just one more little trip in my Times Machine (I finally broke down and subscribed, seems like a lot of people were doing that after last November), and good thing I had the exact date of my destination, since the archive search engine leaves much to be desired.  This time to 1991, which is when Jimmy Breslin’s 410 page biography of Damon Runyon, (evocatively entitled Damon Runyon: A Life) was published.

As Breslin himself related, he never personally had the idea of ever writing any such book, until Ticknor & Fields, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin since 1908, pitched him the idea and wrote him a big check.  Breslin’s not-uncommon philosophy regarding which projects to take was always something along the lines of ‘the more money you have, the more independent you are,’ and many eminent spiritual persons have dissented, but never mind that now. They want Breslin on Runyon, they got Breslin on Runyon.  Which I’m sure would be the name of a sandwich at Mindy’s delicatessen, if that existed outside of Damon Runyon stories.

Point is, he flew down to Austin, since the University of Texas is the rather improbable final resting place of the Hearst New  York newspaper morgue (that may be redundant, and do they have the sled too?). He immersed himself in the material for many a moon, and then he just kept typing until he had himself a nice fat hardcover with his Cheshire Cat face on the back of the dust jacket.  Which was then reviewed.  You see where I’m going with this.

The Sunday New York Times Book Review.  October 6th, 1991.  This is where the titans finally clashed.  Don’t ask me which one was the Kraken.  In the longest, liveliest, and most sarcastic review of his that I have yet to read, appearing under the title The Pleasures of Bad Company, Donald Edwin Westlake proceeded to dismantle James Earle Breslin’s Damon Runyon: A Life.  While at the same time making it clear he thought Breslin was usually well worth reading. To give you the flavor of it, let me type out the first few paragraphs, since the churlish Times won’t let you copy/paste from its digital archives, but at least I don’t have to fly to Austin.  Which I hear is a lively little town, but still.

So here’s how I score it: Runyon 57 points and 6 rounds, Breslin 43 points and 3 rounds, one round even (this was not a championship match).

But it’s a grudge match.  Jimmy Breslin dislikes Damon Runyon, disapproves of Damon Runyon and is determined to bury Damon Runyon all over again, 45 years after the man died.

It’s strange to read a biography in which the author doesn’t like his subject.  Of course, that’s common practice in the world of politics–Robert Caro gnawing endlessly at the withers of Lyndon Johnson, for instance–but it usually doesn’t happen that way when the subject isn’t a politician.  Much more typical is Phyllis Rose, who wrote in her preface to her biography of Josephine Baker, “Jazz Cleopatra”: “My choice was made as instinctively as it is when you fall in love…You see someone.  You light up inside.  If the choice is a deep one, the lists, reasons, and rationalizations come later…after five years I had come to see her…as not all that different from myself….You’d be surprised how much we have in common.”

But we wouldn’t be surprised at how much Mr. Breslin and Runyon have in common.  Both of them New York newspaper columnists turned fiction writers, both with successful movies made from their stories  (“The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” in Mr. Breslin’s case), both with a talent for transcribing or inventing tough street humor, both with an abiding interest in crooks and the wrong side of the law.  (Mr Breslin’s creation Marvin the Torch is merely a Runyon character Runyon didn’t happen to think of, and Jimmy Breslin is the only other guy who could have thought of him.)

In fact, the commonality must have seemed so striking to somebody in publishing that this book is the result.  Jimmy Breslin and Damon Runyon–almost a collaboration in one book.  Except it isn’t a collaboration, it’s a mugging.

And the review is police brutality, but on the whole, it’s still a fair cop.  I have a copy of Breslin’s book on my desk as I type this.  I’ve looked at it.  How can I put this?  Why don’t I let a much better critic than myself or even Westlake do the dirty work, since he does it for a living anyway.  I give you Adam Gopnik–who is doing Runyon, not Breslin, but when you’re writing about somebody who has a biography out, you’re supposed to read it first.  Whether you want to or not.  He opens with a compliment.  Breslin was still alive then.  (Also, there is apparently just one book ever written about Damon Runyon; all the rest were about his writing, which is different; well played Mr. Gopnik.)

The best book about Runyon is Jimmy Breslin’s slightly dispiriting biography, published in 1991, one of those “matches” that make a publisher feel wonderful until the manuscript comes in. Writers train for one length or another, and Breslin’s is essentially a series of eight-hundred-word columns strung together, all told in that good Breslin style, where this guy said that to this other guy—quick glimpses of Prohibition, the Hearst press, stealing coats in the Depression—so that the total effect is like watching the world’s longest subway train go by at night.

But see, Breslin could take that one on the chin like a good sport, since it came out in 2009, long after Damon Runyon: A Life had departed from the shelves of the local booksellers, to be followed in due course by local booksellers.  Westlake’s review was aimed directly at his royalties, and while it was somewhat disingenuous for Breslin to assert in public, vociferously, that this was The Only Bad Review In The Entire Country, it would be fair to say that the others were more diplomatic.

Most newspaper and magazine critics are journalists by trade, such as Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who wrote a slightly earlier and much gentler Times review (the one I can actually find via the Times search engine, hmmmm).  Breslin and Lehmann-Haupt were comrades in arms.  Westlake was from a different outfit.  And as ever, the ultimate independent–Breslin probably thought that was him, but even the most powerful newspaper columnist is still an organization man, and Breslin wasn’t ever Walter Winchell, was he now?  (Which is only a compliment.)

Please note, Breslin never had any stated problems with that review, even though it basically hits all the same bases Westlake’s did.  But then it basically says “Buy the book anyway.”  The one crucial point Breslin wanted made.

And a point Westlake resolutely refuses to make.  It’s hard to read, it’s badly sourced (unsourced, really), the biographer seems to think the book is at least as much about him as it is about its ostensible subject, who he seems to cordially despise, while still looking for some way to make us think he’s important enough for us to want a 410 page book about him.  Also, it keeps sticking modern racial politics into the mix for no reason whatsoever, and insinuates there were no black people in New York City before 1961, which Westlake says would have surprised his dad who grew up in Irish Harlem (Mine too!  Small world.)

You can always go to the library.  You could probably figure out who Runyon was as a man much better by reading an encyclopedia article (no Wikipedia yet) and a good anthology.  Why would anyone not related to Breslin want to buy this?

(I want to be as evenhanded and objective here as a blogger who has written almost exclusively about one writer for three years possibly can be, and Westlake does type one line he thankfully did not live to see turn into a bad joke.  Responding to Breslin’s frequent attacks on Runyon’s admittedly less than stellar qualities as a family man, he says “This is not Bill Cosby, you know.”  Yeah. Now we know.)

A lot of Westlake’s ire is not against Breslin so much as it is for Runyon.  He’s deeply angered that Breslin doesn’t seem to appreciate how much they all owe this guy for arguably doing more than anyone (except maybe Ring Lardner) to create what you might call the basic infrastructure that every subsequent wordsmith who wrote about street people and petty crooks in a whimsical way has made use of, whether he or she ever read one word of Runyon. You give credit where credit is due, but Breslin wants to believe he’s his own unique creation, and there never was anybody like him before, and that’s just a silly thing for anyone to believe, however accomplished, but so many do anyway.

But clearly Breslin read the review.  Now this is a guy who was never known for mincing words, or even parsing them.  If he didn’t like something you did or said, or didn’t do, or didn’t say, he’d tell you and the whole world, in black and white, and he wouldn’t be gentle about it.  And you might think a guy like that would have a sense of humor about the same thing happening to him.  And you’d think wrong.  When it came to the physical stuff, he could famously take it about as well as he dished it out, if not better (ask Jimmy Burke).  When it came to criticism, written or oral, not so much (ask Ji-Yeon Mary Yuh).  Only words could ever hurt him.  Because words were what he most believed in.  Because Irish.

So he did this interview on C-Span, which you can watch online (or just read the transcript) and there he is, going off on tangents as always, and at one point he’s ranting about this one bad review he got in the Times (when he could have just talked about the other review from the same paper that said the same things more nicely),  The Only Bad Review He Ever Got In His Whole Life, and he doesn’t seem to even want to say Westlake’s name until the interviewer says it first.  He’s pissed.  And maybe a bit hurt.  What did I ever do this guy?  About as much as Runyon ever did you, Jimmy.  Nothing personal, right?  Well, I don’t know if it was personal or not.  For you or Westlake.  How could I know that?

My title is probably misleading.  This isn’t a feud.  It’s not Hatfields and McCoys.  It’s not even Bette and Joan.  It’s just two Irish Americans, both writers, both New Yorkers, both lapsed Catholics, both funny, both sharp-tongued, both self-styled champions of the common man, both hating the rich and powerful (while still perpetually fascinated by them), both capable of writing a timely essay (but Breslin was better), both capable of writing an enduring novel (but Westlake was better).  Not quite the same age set, Breslin having come in about five years earlier, but close enough to share most of the same generational experiences.  They both had failed marriages, they both made lasting matches later in life, they both had blended families of kids and step-kids, and they both had to compromise sometimes because of that.

You want to know how great Jimmy Breslin really was, when he was doing what he was born to do?  Read this.  And weep for the loss of him.  Our loss, not his.  And I have no doubt Westlake would have agreed, if we hadn’t lost him first.

But something about Breslin clearly bugged him.  I can only guess about what that was.  I can’t find any evidence Breslin ever noticed Westlake prior to 1991.  That could have been what bugged him.  But I do kind of imagine them keeping occasional tabs on each other over the years; circling each other warily if they met at some midtown bar or literary soiree, squaring off like gunfighters, “This town ain’t big enough fer both of us!”, then thinking nah it’s plenty big enough, and heading over to wherever they were keeping the hors d’oeuvres.

And that’s all I got.  Bye, Breslin.  Maybe you and Westlake can hash things out now.  You can always bond over Trump (I swear, he’s like the Huns; all kinds of weird alliances springing up in his wake).  But if we hear thunder in the heavens…….well.  There’s room up there too.

PS:  I found something else!  At the 1997 trade show of New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Organization (NAIBA), held October 3-5 in Philadelphia (it would be Philadelphia), there was a Saturday morning breakfast roundtable thing, featuring Nat Hentoff, Michael Moore, Jimmy Breslin and (drumroll please) Donald Westlake.  They were discussing issues like censorship and whether there were going to be any independent bookstores in the near future because Walmart.  No mention of Amazon being discussed, or for that matter whether Breslin publicly upbraided Westlake for that bad review (one feels somehow it must have come up, at least in private conversation).

NPR recorded the discussion for its Radio Times show.  At present, I can’t figure out how you get a transcript.  Obviously the actual recording would be even better.  Or hey, there’s always a seance.  😐

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