Leonard has described himself as a “lapsed Catholic,” and there’s a case to be made that his religious upbringing (or lack of it) informs his criticism. He was raised Episcopalian, but as a fourteen-year-old he found some rosary beads in a drawer and asked his mother whose they were; she told him they were his, and that she had promised his father to raise him Catholic. “So I did what any teenage boy would do, and I tried to become Catholic, in a punk, adolescent way,” he told me, and began to read the major Catholic writers — Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Thomas Merton. Sometime later he “came out the other end, an agnostic atheist.”
Today, Leonard is sensitive to the strains of grace that turn up in writers from John Cheever to Don DeLillo. Reviewing Cheever’s final novel, Oh What a Paradise It Seems — a book no one wanted to review, because Cheever was dying, and the novel was bad — Leonard struck a middle road, critiquing Cheever’s self-cannibalizing tendencies, but looking for the motivating curiosity, and using the novel as an occasion to summarize the value of the writer’s outlook:
It seems to me that Cheever speaks not so much of failures of luck and charm and nerve as of failures of faith. How to be brave and good? He mobilizes language in the service of decencies and intuitions that are no longer sanctioned at any altar or practiced in any politics. His stories are brilliant prayers on behalf of ‘‘the perfumes of life: seawater, the smoke of burning hemlock, and the breasts of women.’’ If his church, emphatically Episcopalian, is just another ‘‘ruined cathedral,’’ then he will look for a sacred grove at Beasley’s Pond… . The heart is a compass; there is inside our mess of memory and desire a moral pole toward which the knowing needle swings and points. Something will be required of us: an extravagance, a surprise, a rhapsody, a proof, ‘‘the stamina of love, a presence (we feel) like the beginnings of some stair.’’ Be ready. It could happen anywhere, in the Balkans or in Shady Hill or even in Chicago. It often does, if the prayer was written by John Cheever.
This is a fabulous passage of writing as well as an astute summation of Cheever’s ethos. It reminds us that Cheever wasn’t merely a writer of suburban ennui, but a believer, of sorts. It is also metaphorical, allusive, ambivalent — powerfully drawn.
For all the stock Leonard places in the importance of reviewing, he stalwartly guards against the inflation of self-regard that encroaches on most experts. American literary critics of a strong political bent have been the worst among them, assigning a level of importance and historical necessity to their opinions that Leonard finds specious. “The Partisan Reviewers” — Philip Rahv, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer — “were never as important as they thought they were. Nobody could be, and intellectuals never are,” he writes in his essay on Ex-Friends.
Such suspicion of intellectual arrogance is behind the impulse to dismantle one’s pretenses in public that runs through Leonard’s essay collections; it is an impulse that all critics might take to heart. Critics, after all, play games in their reviews, often preening and primping at the expense of the writer. As Leonard put it, reviewing a biography of Saul Bellow by James Atlas, “A hoary old reviewer’s scam is to pretend you already knew all the inside stuff before you ever read the biography you’re about to quibble with by poaching from. Let me be upfront: Almost everything I know about Bellow that I didn’t guess from reading him I got from the encyclopedic Atlas.” For all his knowledge, Leonard has been able to build into his writing a form of ambivalence and questioning, and it’s this point of view that separates the good reviewer from the great critic. Writing about why he travels, he says, “I want to go anywhere, and to feel ambivalent about it,” explaining that what he most desires is to “dislocate myself.” It’s an apt summation of his critical approach.
These days, Leonard finds himself feeling a little too dislocated. He worries that the dry season of literary culture has arrived. “You talk about this and you begin to sound like an old fart,” he says. “You hear it coming out of your mouth and you wonder whether anything you’re saying is true. But it seemed there was a greater number of serious reviews. And there was certainly a better quality of book reviewing. Certainly at magazines like Time and Newsweek; it’s a scandal what they’re doing now,” he says, noting how little space they give to serious books. In his mind, it’s not just the shrinking number of pages that is the problem; it’s also the sense of opportunism and entitlement that many young critics, wanting to make a name for themselves, bring to the table. “Reviewing has all become performance art; it’s all become posturing. It’s going to have to be the lit blogs that save us. At least they have passion.” But even a fan of literary blogs may wonder if their enthusiasm is enough; passion is a crucial aspect of literary criticism, but passion alone doesn’t produce the essayists of the sort who shape our deepest thinking about our literary culture.