Leonard has published six essay collections — This Pen for Hire (1973), Private Lives in the Imperial City (1979), The Last Innocent White Man in America (1993), Smoke and Mirrors (1997), When the Kissing Had to Stop (1999), and Lonesome Rangers (2002) — and to read any one of them is to be struck by how the pieces speak to one another. A Leonard collection is not a miscellany. From the start, his work has expressed powerful ambivalences about inherited systems of thinking. His main strength, as a reader of fiction and literary nonfiction, is the way he complicates what are often framed as zero-sum debates. Among his best writing in recent years is an essay on Primo Levi that scrutinizes the assumption of some critics — the novelist Cynthia Ozick among them — that Levi was too forgiving of the Holocaust, too willing to put his hatred and damage aside. For those critics, Levi’s final book, The Drowned and the Saved, in which he writes about the horrors of camp prisoners’ collaborating with Nazis to avoid being exterminated, marks an ascent to form because it finally unleashes Levi’s rage and hate. But for Leonard, it is a further tragedy, the manifestation of the encroaching unbalance that led Levi, finally, to kill himself. The earlier Levi, he suggests, “argues that perhaps something of the best of us, skeptical, ironic and aware, could outlive the worst.” Why wish for those who bring us news from horror to have no sense of forgiveness?
If the primary mode of literary criticism is exposition, Leonard’s method tends to be immersion. His reviews rarely treat a single book by the author at hand; rather, he gathers together a mass of textual and biographical materials. In his essays on Saul Bellow, Bruce Chatwin, Ralph Ellison, Bernard Malamud, Bob Dylan, and, more recently, Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody, and Jonathan Franzen, he peers closely at “those masks, sacred and profane, that the artist wears while digging up the buried bodies and playing with the bones.” Instead of merely analyzing a book, he brings to life an entire literary sensibility, warts and all, animating each writer’s larger outlook.
Leonard himself has a novelist’s knack for memorable characterization. He has called Edmund Wilson “an alcoholic minotaur,” and has described Joan Didion as a journalist writing “gnomic haikus” while “wearing a bikini and a migraine to every convulsion of the post-war culture.” Leonard is also a connoisseur of the aphorism. From a 1981 essay on literary status: “A curmudgeon is different from a snob. A snob can be disdainful in only one direction; a curmudgeon spreads his contumely around.” From a 1977 essay on literature about businessmen: “Kafka looked in the mirror and saw the modern corporation.” At times, he is diverted by insider punning and overly dense allusions — too much so, for example, in the opening of “Knee-Deep in the Alien Corn,” an essay from When the Kissing Had to Stop, in which he writes, “Forget Seinfeld — a cheese doodle of urban fecklessness in which, to every penis joke, the white bread slackers wore a prophylactic smirk.” Still, his wordplay is often illuminating and enlivening. It reminds us there are as many ways of talking about literature as there are of writing a short story.
As a critic, Leonard wants to be part of no club that will have him. He is skeptical of anyone who espouses, too avidly, an affection for postmodernism or a retreat to traditionalism. In his view, there is a distinct set of (sometimes unrecognized) writers who have furthered the idiom of American fiction. Often, but certainly not always, those are writers with an interest in American radicalism; often, but not always, their prose is incantatory, rhythmic, inventive — writers like Didion, DeLillo, Richard Powers, and Toni Morrison. Leonard, in fact, was among the first reviewers to canonize Morrison’s novel Beloved, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, where he wrote in 1987: “Beloved belongs on the highest shelf of American literature, even if half a dozen canonized white boys have to be elbowed off.” Morrison would end up being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1993, and last spring, Beloved was named the best novel of the past twenty-five years by a panel of literary critics and novelists. In a piece Leonard wrote when Morrison received the Nobel in Sweden — he traveled to the ceremony — the critic of no club delighted in seeing a female African American author being welcomed into the ur-club.
Those who don’t like Leonard’s criticism often claim that he is, especially in recent years, too “nice.” Perhaps. “When I was young I loved to slash and burn, and that has definitely changed,” he says. “I obviously am disinclined in these autumnal days to trashing anything. Occasionally you have to write something negative, because an important writer has written a book that you feel is symptomatic of something deeply wrong with culture — like Norman Podhoretz’s last book.”
It’s a shame, in a way, that Leonard doesn’t slash and burn more frequently, since his attack on Podhoretz’s Ex-Friends, “Norman Podhoretz, Alone at Last,” is lucid, hilarious, sharp-tongued, and perspicacious, a send-up of not only Podhoretz but the broader schmoozing involved in being part of the punditocracy, and the literary world, today. “There can be no more authoritarian an intellectual,” he writes, infuriated by Podhoretz’s put-downs of gay men and feminists, “than the one who ordains that everybody else in the democratic motley must look and behave exactly like him.”