A NEUTRAL CORNER

By A.J. Liebling

Edited by Fred Warner and James Barbour

North Point Press. 245 pp. $18.95

HE WAS neither learned nor profound nor what the French might call engage', and in the great scheme of things he was perhaps not a very important writer, but as many readers of the New Yorker in the '40s and '50s might plead, Abbott Joseph Liebling was consistently the most entertaining nonfiction writer of his generation. He wrote about many things: the New York demimonde, the city of Chicago, Louisiana politics, the press, food, war and France. He wrote about them in an expansive, shrewd and good-humored manner that no other journalist has ever been able to match. And this same genial talent he brought to bear on his boxing articles, which, if virtually ignoring the sport's brutality, nevertheless demonstrate a sympathetic understanding of the people who live by and for boxing, as well as an appreciation of what goes on inside the ropes.

Indeed, Liebling's The Sweet Science has been a favorite among literary aficionados of the ring since its publication in 1956, and for many readers it probably represented the complete Liebling boxiana. But no, Liebling wrote an additional 15 essays that, thanks to North Point Press and editors Fred Warne and James Barbour, are now available. The assemblage is called A Neutral Corner, after the bar on 55th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan where the fight crowd used to hang out some 40 years ago. And it is, as one would expect, vintage Liebling.

Other writers have spilled ink on boxing, most notably William Hazlitt, George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, Arnold Bennett and Norman Mailer, but none could lay a glove on Joe Liebling. Here he is on Archie Moore trying to put away a mediocre opponent: "Moore moved Rinaldi around the ring like a man shifting a picture on a wall as he looks for the exact place to hang it." Watching a fighter having his problems with Cassius Clay {later Muhammad Ali}, Liebling notes that "he was like a man trying to fight off wasps with a shovel." And when a manager tells Liebling, "I'm going to fight Clay my way," Liebling remarks: "The substitution of the first for the third person is managerial usage. I knew that McWhorter would resubstitute Banks for himself in the actual fight." The urge to quote from Liebling is irresistible, and to this reader, at least, "The Quotable Liebling" would be nearly as long as the ouevre.

Not everyone, it must be said, is a Liebling fan. Given the racially and sexually sensitized age we live in, Liebling must take his lumps along with other such chauvinists and bigots as Shakespeare and Mark Twain. In On Boxing, Joyce Carol Oates admits that she dislikes "much of Liebling, for his relentlessly jokey, condescending, and occasionally racist attitude toward his subject." Particularly offensive is his portrait of "Hurricane" Jackson, who is presented as a boxer of little brain. To this one can only reply that some boxers, like some professors, are jackasses, and there's no getting around it. Liebling does not condescend to Jackson because he's a fighter or because he's black, but because he's a bonehead. There is certainly no trace of condescension in Liebling's regard for the legendary Sam Langord or the longevous Archie Moore. And while Liebling does use words like "scholar" and "student" when referring to the boys at Stillman's Gym, it is more of a fond address than a putdown. Anyway, to hear Lou Duva or Angelo Dundee hold forth on strategy is to understand the temptation to describe them as "educators."

The graver issue is Oates's imputation of racism. That charge is best answered by Liebling's essay, "Ad Lib," which begins with a reference to an editorial in a Louisiana newspaper claiming that "the Negro I.Q. becomes progressively lower as he ages." Thirty years ago, the furor greeting this pronouncement would have been short-lived and localized. Liebling could have ignored it, but instead chose to confront it in typical Lieblingesque fashion. Awful man that he is, he condescends to it. He doesn't stomp it to death, but merely opines that a man of his acquaintance, Archie Moore by name, "puts the editorial thesis in doubt by growing smarter as he goes along." This and further asides throughout the piece (somewhere else he calls a racist heckler "a Snopes") do not exactly jibe with a racist mentality. Oates's own bias against Liebling, however, is not hard to understand. Temperamentally, they seem like two different species. Oates reading Liebling is like a driven analytic mole trying to size up a moose who rambles where he pleases.

All prejudice on a superficial level is a con, whereby one person can feel superior to another. Liebling could smell a con a mile away, and while he enjoyed grifters and sharpies he was never fooled by them. He knew Cassius Clay for a con artist of the harmless kind and got a real kick out of him. He also knew that Sonny Liston was not the monster everyone thought him, nor did he buy into the notion of the first Liston-Patterson fight as a contest between good and evil. Sham and pretense were his enemies, and one can only tenderly imagine what he might have done with the educators at a convention of the Modern Language Association. WAS LIEBLING a writer without flaws? Of course not. His self-conscious erudition -- the references to Pierce Egan, the 19th-century chronicler of fisticuffs, and to Ibn Khaldun, the 14-century Tunisian historian -- fly thickly and soon grow tiresome. Nor does his use of the high tone to adumbrate the low life always sit well with readers. But just when one thinks "enough," up pops a simile or detail or something like this: Finding himself liking a fighter without finesse, Liebling writes that it was "a sensation as astonishing to me as it would be to find a Time writer or an anti-novelist personally amusing, or an atonal musician congenial, or an ad spray-gun painter good company." Liebling can sometimes be too much, and admittedly too much of Liebling at one sitting can be a mistake. But then you don't put away souffles the way you would pancakes.

From looking at a photograph or reading the work, one gets the idea that here was a man who did not miss much and did not like to miss out on anything. He was a large man, a man famous for consuming great quantities of food, and he clearly savored what he ate (and saw and read), communicating his enjoyment in a prose that is both roomy and droll, with a battered elegance to it that is balm to the discriminating reader. Even today there are those who can still find happiness in reading good prose. It is perhaps one reason that God made Liebling.

Arthur Krystal is a writer and a critic.