The light on the message machine was blinking when I walked past a while back and I punched the button and there was an old friend of mine—a writer and reader—with a recommendation: “Read A,J. Liebling.“
Second rate English major that I am, I had heard of Liebling the way I’d heard of so many other writers—vaguely and in passing. I had long since filed him under: “Someday maybe I’ll get around to,” then misplaced the file. Liebling was one more name halfway down the New Yorker’s fabled masthead—another caution of a young man about town who’d disappeared into that maze of anecdotes about New Yorker writers drinking lunch, dropping bon mots, and amusing themselves until cocktail hour.
Foolish me. My friend finally thrust an anthology of Liebling’s stuff into my hands and, upon reading it, I was surprised to discover the man could flat out write. Liebling captured New York and the larger world in his piece of the Twentieth Century beautifully. He had a keen eye for details and foibles and a wide range of interests.
Prize fighting. French cuisine. Louisiana politics. From Archie Moore’s training camp to lobster prepared “a l’americaine” in a small, well kept secret of a Parisian restaurant, Liebling carries it off deftly, peopling his narratives with great characters—each keenly observed and perfectly sketched. Life as A.J. Liebling writes it is an embarrassment of riches, always served with precisely the right wine.
Arguably his best characters are the con men and scam artists who hang out in the lobby of (or if things are going well, take a rent-by-the-month office in) a nondescript office building—the Jollity Building—on Broadway in the high forties in the age of the zoot suit. Liebling’s “The Telephone Booth Indians” easily out-Runyons Damon Runyon. Swamp land in New Jersey changes hands. Nightclubs appear and disappear. Lunch counter lunches go unpaid for. Musicians get non union work at clubs in Queens and run around the corner to get their instruments out of pawn. Dance girls rehearse in the halls. The phone booths in the lobby serve as offices (“Call me at this number at four,”). It’s a great read, beautifully written.
Looking for a great late summer read? Liebling is your man.