'Reading for my Life': The electric mind of John Leonard glows on

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I read recently that Matt Taibbi, one of the great reporters on Rolling Stone's national affairs desk, was already tired of the ubiquity of the phrase "vampire squid," a term he used to describe the parasitical nature of Goldman Sachs in an influential 2009 piece ("The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money").

Sure, it was a memorable phrase. But to longtime readers of the literary and culture critic John Leonard, it was nothing new. References to vampires as a prefix for evil have been turning up in Mr. Leonard's work for decades. "Vampire capitalism" comes quickly to mind. He once described the contrarian L.A. historian Mike Davis as "less like a MacArthur Fellow than a Chupacabra, the goat-sucking vampire of Latin American folklore." Mr. Leonard even snuck "Vampire Media" into an essay collection's 35-word subtitle (between "Serial Killers" and "Alien Sperm-Suckers").

By John Leonard, edited by Sue Leonard with an introduction by E.L. Doctorow.
Viking ($35).

Mr. Leonard, who died in 2008 at the age of 69, was more than one of the most influential critics of our age. For many readers, including this one, Mr. Leonard was the critic who helped us make the most sense of postwar, midcentury American writers and their postmodern successors. His lyrical and deeply erudite reviews and essays read like ebullient jazz riffs on pages designed for tasteful adagios.

To read John Leonard is to engage in a Vulcan mind-meld in which the tumble of information and insight is so one-sided as to leave the reader exhausted from the effort of pretending to hold up one's end of the conversation.

His judgments never failed to exude a generosity of spirit, even while administering a much-needed slap of critical evenhandedness. You could practically hear Mr. Leonard sigh with disappointment over Jonathan Lethem's slight but evocative 2005 short story collection "Men and Cartoons," even while praising him as one of the best writers of his generation. He didn't like the fact that Mr. Lethem had outsourced so much of his imagination to the bullpen at Marvel Comics.

Still, it was the kind of thoughtful critique that only he could manage. John Leonard knew how to say "I love you" even while being caustic. A bad review by Mr. Leonard was worth dozens of positive reviews by others.

Mr. Leonard's review of Peggy Noonan's 1990 memoir, "What I Saw at the Revolution," is possibly the nastiest piece he ever wrote, but only because it told the truth about a fawning former Reagan speechwriter's ambivalence about a president she claimed to love.

Mr. Leonard had his favorites. He always graced reviews of Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Studs Terkel, Joan Didion, Kurt Vonnegut and Toni Morrison with the most lapidarian sentences he could muster.

He had his un-favorites, too, of which Bob Dylan seemed to be at the top of his list. In "Blowing His Nose in the Wind," Mr. Leonard fought for Joan Baez's honor at Mr. Dylan's expense in a genuinely funny piece that reads like the literary equivalent of "Positively 4th Street." Noticeably missing from this volume of 50 essays is anything on the prolific John Updike or the films of Woody Allen. Their absence, given their prominence in the culture, begs a million questions.

Still, what I miss most about John Leonard are the essays he delivered on CBS's "Sunday Morning," none of which are reprinted here. His free-ranging cultural commentaries were without peer because he refused to leave his critical acumen home, just because he was talking on the boob tube.

"Reading for My Life" closes with beautiful tributes by Mr. Leonard's widow, Sue, and an assortment of children, appreciative novelists and fellow critics. They are a properly humanizing touch for a critic who cared as much about people as ideas. He traveled in brainy circles, sending essays to the New York Review of Books, Harper's, The Nation and many other fine journals from his Upper East Side townhouse -- but he would happily show up in, for example, Pittsburgh to speak at a community college just because an English teacher there called him at home and invited him.

Four years after his death, John Leonard has yet to be replaced in this writer's affections. Though bringing so many of his essays together is a reason to celebrate, it is also a reminder of the aching loss for readers, desperate for a critic we can believe in.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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