John Leonard is a ringer in the daily New York Times. He generally makes three appearances there a week. Two of these are book reviews, and they are fresh and witty breaks from the Times' earnestly thorough news coverage. The third is a midweek column caled "Private Lives," which stands out from the rest of the paper in its polished style and engagingly personal tone. Despite its title, this collection of the columns bears out the feeling one had in reading them individually: More than anything else in the daily times. they are boound to endure apart from microfiche.
"Private Lives" centers on the "the phapsodies and Lamentations of domestic life." The rhapsodist is a 40ish father, remarried-he refers to his first wife as the "penultimate" one-living in a Manhattan townhouse, and wont to call himself "Dmitri." By way of explaining this last foible, he Mobylizes himself to write: "Call him Dmitri. We have to call him something, and he has never been satisfied with his real name, which is, like Bill or Pete or Tom, a thin name, almost a pronoun, all edge, lacking a dimension, no muscle, no hair, no fat pads. Dmitri he associates with the calisthenics of the soul in 19th-century Russian novels."
Dmitri's enviable method for staying even with life is to recast it in epigrams. (Yes, there are other methods, but they all involve toil.) In a column on a dinner party he gave for a group of college freshmen, Dmitri distrills his wisdom into a nice epigrammatic trio:
"1. Nobody can ever get too much approval.
"2. No matter how much you want or need, they , whoever they are, don't want to let you get away with it, whatever it is.
"3. Sometimes you get away with it"
Elsewhere he expands the first of the trio into a column of its own. His wife, who teaches in a school where grades are pitched from 1 to 100, has gotten a term paper of unalloyed brilliance from one of her students. Yet, superb as it may be, she refuses to bestow a 100, on the theory that nothing is perfect. He teacher pals back her up.
Dmitri rises to chide: "A large point is being missed here . . . All our lives, but especially at age sixteen, and especially if we almost deserve it, we want and need-for a moment or a single act of the intelligence and imagination, a performance-to be judged as perfect. Just once. Remember that term paper? It would make dying less of a cold surprise." A few columns later we learn that Dmitri's wife (he resists the temptation to call her Grushenka) relented and gave the 100 after all. A fine triumph for diurnal essaymanship.
Several of Dmitri's witticisms have enough epigram-weight to be quoted out of context. He meets a young man "who spoke so softly that one wondered whether his pilot light had gone out"; singles bars are the "service stations of the libido"; a friend has become a professor "at one of those California universities that spring up overnight like shopping malls"; and "I am not easily bored. I have been to Cleveland, and finished the diaries of Anais Nin."
Indeed, my only reservation about the book is that some of the weaker pieces consist of little more than bookish one-liners which Leonard piles up into excess badinage. And some of the one-liners hardly rise above the level of supercilious standup comedy. Lecturing himself, Dmitri says: "To be regular, typical, bland, nondescript, standard, average is to be cursed. What are you, a Ramada Inn?" Like another recent collection of essays on Being in New York-Fran Lebowitz's "Metropolitan Life"-"Private Lives in the Imperial City" is so unwaveringly clever that after a while it begins to cloy. Does Leonard aspire to be the Henny Youngman of belles lettres? Will he and Lebowitz team up to tape Dial-an-Aphorism?
Fortunately, there is an easy remedy for Leonard's too-muchness. Read "Private Lives" in doses, like a tonic-before bed, in the bathtub, on the beach. A few at a time, the columns are as fine as any short essays being written in America today.
Taken this way, John Leonard is too clever by only three-eights.