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High Liebling

Wayward Reporter By Raymond Sokolov Harper & Row, $16.95

By Sarah L. Mcvity

AS A RECENT food critic himself for The New York Times, it is exactly fitting that Ray Sokolov '63 should become the chronicler of the life of the journalist's gastronome and the gastronome's journalist, A.J. Leibling. Although not nearly so imposing a figure in person as the legendary New Yorker columnist (Sokolov sports 170 lbs. tops to Liebling's lifetime high of 256 lbs.), Sokolov's meticulous research techniques--the residue of a Harvard education?--and his flowing prose more than rise to the occasion of Wayward Reporter, a biography of Liebling.

Sokolov's bond to Liebling's career runs deeper than a superficial homage to a fellow eater, though. The older writer, by the end of his life, had managed to include almost every kind of writing, journalistic and non-journalistic, in his list of accomplishments. He reviewed restaurants; covered boxing matches, great and small; witnessed D-Day and the liberation of Paris as a war correspondent; cranked out short story collections and novellas; and critiqued the state of American journalism in his "Wayward Press" column for years. One of the most prolific and versatile writers of the century, Liebling died frustrated, having failed to write a Great American Novel, a ghost he pursued all his life. He wanted to write a significant novel to legitimize his writing career, much as he always wanted to wear a British derby and "learn to shave with a straight razor on a moving railroad train" to fulfill his ideas of adulthood.

Sokolov, at the age of 37, has sampled more of the different varieties of writing that readers of his New York Times food criticism might realize. Sokolov's 1975 novel, Native Intelligence, told the story of a Harvard genius whose exploits in Africa in the Peace Corps seem to leave his abiding Ivy League smugness and a self-satisfaction unscathed; he followed it with a cookbook. As the often jocular tone of Native Intelligence indicates, he has less of a taste for dictating the ingredients of a successful life than a successful souffle.

In Wayward Reporter, Sokolov digs under Liebling's unrelenting refusal in nearly all of his work to take himself or his profession more seriously than they merited. Never burdened by the prevailing, self-deceptive myth of the objectivity of news reporting, Liebling made his the craft of shaping minute detail with careful description in his pieces until the appearances of his subjects, often the "lowlife" street hustlers and small-time entrepreneurs of New York City, gave way to their unmistakeable reality: the reality Joe Liebling saw in them. Possessed of a memory so remarkable he rarely made notes, but quoted extensively and accurately from conversations and interviews, Liebling, one of the most acute observers of his times, chose throughout his career to tread the thin line between fiction and reality.

SOKOLOV ATTRIBUTES to Liebling the pioneering work in the foggy area between fiction and journalism which Truman Capote and Norman Mailer later explored. Liebling's greatness lay in his absorption of the entire story--in both senses--behind people and events, from Seventh-Avenue con men to Sugar Ray Robinson. He embraced his subjects' lives and their outlook on the world; searched out their motivations and methods and then laid forth their lives, mostly in their own words--but through his own wild periscope of the self-style uptown revel, the reluctant Jew, the recipient of all that his immigrant father had built from scratch long that same seamy side of New York, including what Joseph and Abbott Liebling had tried their best to shield him from. His parents' efforts led to his schizophrenic class attitudes: in his own life averse to the streets (he lived an upperclass life on an upper-middle class budget), at the same time he was fascinated with writing about those who lived in New York's underbelly.

The monument of Liebling's accomplishment is a journalistic one, but it is very different from that of a modern Woodward-and-Bernstein success story. All the President's Men heightened respect for investigative journalism, but at the price of romanticizing it, turning every young reporter into a toppler of presidents in his dreams. Sokolov helps bring a more substantial image to the public notion of the heroic journalist: the seasoned, shrewd man-about-town who has seen it all and written it all.

WITHOUT THE FOUR YEARS of solid research behind it, Wayward Reporter might have turned into a dry, formal investigation of modern journalistic writing from 19th-century mush to Hearstian sensationalism to the terse prose on the front page of today's New York Times. At times, Sokolov seems a little overwhelmed by the topic, like a python swallowing an elephant. He wrestles with how to treat Liebling's role as a war correspondent, not one of his greatest periods. Sokolov does not compare Liebling's war pieces to other more outstanding journalists of the time, perhaps because he does not want to embark upon a project that could easily fill another book. Still, the lack of professional comparisons throughout the book detracts from a full understanding of how Liebling's work progressed.

Sokolov must be praised, however, for effectively narrowing his topic. In the end, he has emphasized the biography over the literary analysis, a choice all literary critics and biographers face in their work, and he certainly made the best decision in this case. The rotund Liebling is plenty to chew on without biting off bigger chunks of journalistic history.

Since the romanticization of the modern reporter, not enough writers have sought to compare today's journalism with that of the long but relatively obscured decades that preceded it. Wayward Reporter revives the ghost of a great journalist without romanticizing it, and rescues sometimes-forgotten journalistic standards for Lieblings of the eighties.

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