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.”
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.