Just Enough Liebling
Classic Work by the Legendary
New Yorker Writer
(North Point Press)The food and drug administration might consider putting A. J. Liebling on their Schedule III series of drugs. I picked up Just Enough Liebling to leaf through it, and that was all she wrote for the next few days.It is a combination of style and subject. The style is leisurely, articulate, catchy, and (mostly) deadpan. The subjects: World War II, boxing, Paris, street life in New York City, the Long Dynasty of Louisana, and the press. His tales of the legendary Longs are the stuff of legends. Liebling's eccentric "The Wayward Press" columns in The New Yorker were a critical, always funny look at the facts and (more often) contradictions in New York City's newspapers.But the writings that attract now are not sports, or reportage, or the tables of Paris --- but the everydayness of World War II in North Africa, at sea, and in France. "Westbound Tanker" takes us (and Liebling, and a small crew) on the Norwegian ship Regnbue in 1942. In "The Foamy Fields" we are with him at one of the joint French/American landing fields in Tunisia, in 1943. "Days with the Daydaybay" has us racing with the French Deuxième Division Blindée and First and Third American armies up central France towards Paris in the dying days of the war.
In all these, Liebling is there, plump, nearsighted, running across airfields, riding in jeeps, wandering down roads ... always in physical danger. Like his current reincarnation, Ryszard Kapuscinski, he knew that to report on the war, you had to be in the war ... even though, on the road to Paris, he can say: "By 1944, I no longer thought of myself as a man to lead a raid behind enemy lines, and our 1937-or-so Chevrolet was no armored division."
It is Leibling's presence --- always seeming able to fit in with the men who were fighting, dying, getting wounded: it is this you-are-there that gives his writing such power, along with the facts, good and bad, about the soldier's life.
This, on reaching the place in the Tunisian desert where a Messerschmitt 109 had just crashed:
Flames were roaring above the portion deepest in the earth, which I judged was the engine. Screws, bolts, rings, and unidentifiable bits of metal were scattered over an area of at least seventy-five yards square. Intermingled with all this were widely scattered red threads, like the bits left in a butcher's grinder when he had finished preparing an order of chopped steak. "He never even tried to pull out," a soldier said.
The "red threads." The "butcher's grinder." The "chopped steak." Liebling is writing about war; war is about killing and dying. Liebling, as a writer for the always discreet New Yorker, must be, and always is, discreet about the final component of a bitter war.
Liebling was a writer of the old school. His love of food had caused his first affair with Paris (and his considerable girth). One knew that his description of the soldier's food, the omnipresent K ration, was heartfelt:
Flat waxed-cardboard packages --- thirty-six to a case --- each containing the ready-to-eat components of a nourishing, harmless and gastronomically despicable meal, calculated, I always supposed, to discourage overindulgence. (Among troops actively engaged, a K ration beat nothing to eat, but it was a photo finish.)
It is Liebling's tolerance, winsomeness, humanity and attention to detail that holds the reader. His French friend Léon has a strange way with the English language, duly reported: "Léon always referred to a telephone switchboard as a switching board, oil paper as oily paper, a pup tent as a puppy tent, and a bedding roll as a rolling bed."
It is a sly humor, never seeming to miss anything, under the unsentimental gruffness that was expected of reporters back then. But even this coolness gives way when Liebling, on his way up the heart of France with another reporter, tells of what he is feeling, what he has felt, as they approach Paris:
How many times in his life does a man start out for what he is certain is going to be a phenomenally happy occasion? I don't think that Roach [his companion] who was in his middle twenties, had ever been in Paris, but that gave his anticipation a special quality. And for me, at forty, and with nearly half that many years of scattered memories of Paris behind me, it was like finding my Annabel Lee again. All the previous spring, in London, I had been reading clandestine newspapers smuggled out of France. I had cried over them. I do not regret my sentimentality; I wish I had something now that I could be so sentimental about.--- Carlos Amantea