Monday, November 11, 2013

John Leonard's "Lonesome Rangers": Book Review

I read this for two reasons. I wanted to find out Leonard's take on Jáchym Topol's novel "City Sister Silver" in light of the Velvet Revolution and Leonard's visit a summer after, and, sparked by James Wolcott's nod in "Lucking Out" to his fellow reviewer for his doing so as "performance art," I was curious about Leonard's style. 

This 2002 collection theoretically looks at "the literature of exile," but when Bob Dylan, Eugene Debs, Jeremy Rifkin, Mary McCarthy, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger sit as subjects alongside Bruce Chatwin, Ralph Ellison, Barbara Kingsolver, Salman Rushdie, you can sense it's a loose theme. Leonard's energetic pace and penchant for stuffing his reviews full of quoted phrases from not only the work in consideration but it seems all that novelist or writer's past work can be admirable and wearying. It depends on how much you share his particular enthusiasm or excoriation for the creative talent elevated or skewered.

He will surprise nobody with his politics, but I found his contempt for Bill Clinton's second term an encouraging sign of the sell-out nature of politicians of either party, and he argues well for the emergence of alternatives. He later cogently explains why parties failed the Left, and why socialism never made it in the U.S. As a young man from the city I teach in, he tells briefly why the "West Coast Progressivism" did not outlast the Wobblies long, and how the unions capitulated to the usual powers that be. I wish he'd shared more. He's able to sum up a lot in a little despite rambling on: he finds the problem in post-apartheid South Africa the result of the redistribution of power but not the redistribution of wealth.

As this shift of power and wealth infuses the Czech book which brought me here, I liked his credit to Topol for "an entirely original novel, in which one of those old-fashioned go-for-broke Author Gods, like an aborigine on outback walkabout, sings the world into being." (225) And, while he hates Roth for telling you what to think about his characters long before they appear, and while the "gripes of Roth" must have been a phrase he was just waiting to type, the tone of his essays can pummel you--his erudition and energy expended on Saul Bellow, say, or Norman Podheretz may excite you or make you pause for a break.

He notes in his last chapter--it goes on a bit too long, whereas many pieces feel balanced even if you lament their frenetic prose or shrink from their expectation you can follow all the references and have read all those books, too--that it's better for him to review other people's books rather than write his own. Either way, he's amassed an immense draw of recent literature to draw on in magpie fashion, and what he stuffs into this nest of essays shows the value of mining a life spent immersed in books and the publishing world. (9-6-13 to Amazon US)

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