Extended quotation will be the tactic favored by most reviewers of this stimulating essay collection sparkling with Leonard’s trademark breezy style and flair for phrasemaking (Smoke and Mirrors, 1997; When the Kissing Had to Stop, 1999).
Leonard rattles along in high gear in these 27 varied literary pieces, which are unified in a general way by their brooding on the themes of “exodus and exile . . . diaspora and displacement” as recorded and experienced by contemporary writers. For example, reviews grouped under the rubric “Down Among the Intellectuals” range widely to consider Primo Levi’s irreversible fatalism, the unlikely pairing of Rimbaud and Orwell as “Radical Icons,” the exasperating presence of Mary McCarthy (who “had a moral compass that pointed away from doctrinaire politics”), the charismatic enigma of Bruce Chatwin, and the recent firestorm of books celebrating and traducing the New Yorker magazine (tartly labeled “the peculiar institution” by Leonard). A section on “The Politics of Fiction” contains more ambitious pieces, including a pointed contrast between Atlanta novels by Toni Cade Bambara and Tom Wolfe, tightly reasoned tributes to Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and the ingeniously engineered novels of Richard Powers, and a long review of Jáchym Topol’s exuberant picaresque City Sister Silver, which becomes the occasion for a searching analysis of former Czech president Vaclav Havel’s political and literary careers. The failures of socialism, the ideal of “community,” and American business’s faltering sense of richesse oblige are explored as “Lost Causes,” along with discussions of Marguerite Young’s fascinating un-biography of Eugene Debs and Joe Eszterhas’s ebulliently sleazy noveloid American Rhapsody. Leonard ends with “How the Caged Bird Learns to Sing,” an account of his still-developing understanding of how reporting in the print and visual media for which he toils is shaped by its power brokers’ personal and corporate ties.
Timely, irresistible cultural criticism from one of the best literary journalists in—and also outside—the business.