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Jimmy Breslin is like a firetruck. When he starts to talk, you have to hang on for all you're worth to keep from being thrown off and left behind. He runs through topics and opinions faster than a hook and ladder runs stoplights.
Breslin was in town this week, drumming up support for his latest novel, World Without End, Amen. He was autographing copies of the book at the Coop. Before he took his stint on the ballpoint shift, I got on the Breslin firetruck. It was a helluva ride.
It doesn't take much to start Breslin off. He enjoys hearing his gutteral Queens voice make sounds. And he is adept at snapping off quick analyses and critiques of situations and people.
Take Watergate, for example. Breslin did, non-stop for fifteen uninterruptable minutes. Breslin was emphatic in his analysis, lacing the bullshit rhetoric that has propelled him to celebrity status with incisive commentary about American life and politics.
"Do you think Watergate is a big as some people think it is?" I asked innocently. And revving his engine, he launched a breakneck stream-of-consciousness critique:
"It's bigger, much bigger. It's fascism. They caught fascism, that's what they caught. They were looking for burglars and they found guys with the First and Fourth Amendments under their arms trying to scurry away in the night. That's what it came to."
"How much would you blame the administration?" "Well, who are you supposed to blame down there? The doorkeeper? The gatekeeper? Or the President? I would say it's his idea." Already the truck was out of control.
Without losing momentum, Breslin swung around a corner to the topic of Spiro Agnew. Interviewed the morning before Agnew resigned, he offered some comic prophecy and analysis:
"He's [Agnew] like all ethnics. While the WASPs are out trying to steal the bed of an ocean or the First and Fourth Amendments--they only commit high crimes, the WASPs--the ethnics, what do they know, when they steal, they steal cash. So here in the middle of this great thing with a president trying to steal the Constitution and set up a dictatorship, here in the end what does the one ethnic do? Greek immigrant, son of a Greek immigrant, he takes two cases of asparagus off a Food Fare guy and a couple thousand dollars in bills (which I am absolutely sure had to have big marks all over them, Gs and red letters and all that stuff). He went the way of the ethnics: he took cash."
The fire truck doesn't slow when traditions or institutions get in the road ahead. Take Harvard and a question about its contributions to U.S. government--the Kissingers, the Bundys, the Richardsons, et. al.:
"Only one thing is disappointing about this place [Harvard]. Weren't they able to produce one man who would quit, quit the job, quit the power, walk away, spit at it, spit at them and everything they were doing? Wasn't there one fella who would do it? What's the matter with these people? I see all these names--the Bundys and all the rest--they're out on the street when the Berrigans are in jail.
"I never could understand it. All these people who were around the Defense Department at the time they were bombing these women and children. Didn't one of them ever have the guts to say 'I don't care if I'm in a big powerful position, I don't care if they give me cars, I don't care if I'm a little guy out of an academic world and all of a sudden I'm a big important man in government power, I don't care what I am, I don't care about my own ego and my fierce drives to get to the top; this is wrong and I'm going to throw it right out the fuckin' window and take a walk and blow the whistle on these bastards.' Wasn't there one guy with that kind of guts in him? Doesn't this school teach one fuckin' guy to quit when it will do some good? Apparently not. And that is an enormous failure."
Breslin is fast. He is colorful, outrageous, witty. He likes his image as a "tough" and he cultivates that image.
"Nobody ever gave me nothin'," Breslin says. "Everything I got I grabbed with my own fuckin' hands." And he is proud of his do-it-the-hard-way success.
On Agnew: "Greek immigrant, son of a Greek immigrant, he takes two cases of asparagus off a Food Fare guy and a couple thousand dollars in bills."
But underneath the tough-skinned Breslin, behind the wall of bullshit, in back of the Queens accent, the slovenliness, the vainglorious earthiness, is another Breslin. A Breslin who is frustrated and angered by a society that programs people to failure and ignores compelling social problems.
When he talks about these things, the bravado front softens. Foremost in Breslin's book is the problem of jobs in the cities--especially for blacks: "If you don't put jobs in the ghetto, you're going to have crime and fear forever. We need these jobs, because as long as you can start them on the work you can cut down the crime. But you can't expect results right away. You're going to have to struggle and make excuses and work with these bastards for another 50, 75, who knows how many, years. But you got to get to the start of it sometime and face it. Go tell that to an audience. Now you're telling the truth. And it's hard. Most voters would boo you."
Another thing that strips back the Breslin bravado (a thing he deals with in his writing) is the "lost possibilities" of people coming out of neighborhoods like Queens. "I love to examine the lost possibilities of guys coming out of these neighborhoods, that never knew, never went anywhere--anything they had got thrown into the wind.
"I think it's a very important theme, because that's where the rages appear from those people. Later on in life the rage is terrible. They rage against kids, they rage against this, they rage against that. The level of annoyance is continually high, never lowered, always right up under the surface. Violence erupts. Your courtrooms are filled with the debris, with their kids. It's scary. It's the scariest part of life I know. Because they're capable of anything, the resentments are so huge. And nobody bothers with them.
"Most people don't know where the Harvard library is. Most people don't know where the Twenty-One Club is in New York. Most people don't know anything. They know the television, they know the neighborhood saloon, they know the job they have to go to, and they know that they don't get along with their wives and yet they're stuck with them because they have four kids and a home.
There's tremendous abilities lost in lives like that. Who knows how many artists, who knows how many writers, who knows how many engineers, how many poets or musicians they could have been?"
It's the same Breslin style. Yet subtly, underneath, it's not the same Breslin. Under the tough exterior, under the quick quip and the profanity, is a legitimate interest in people.
This Breslin seldom comes out. The fast-talk New Yorker conceals it assiduously. But it is there, and it explains the curious compassion that runs through Breslin's work. He's a tough guy, he writes strong, crude, simple prose. He likes it that way. But underneath....well.... Jimmy Breslin is a helluva firetruck ride. And it's worth hanging on to see what's under the hood.
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