Sunday, January 20, 2008

Jimmy Breslin

Jimmy Breslin’s Perpetual Deadline

Published: January 20, 2008

JIMMY BRESLIN, in his bare feet and a bricklayers’ union sweatshirt, sat at home some months ago glumly taking phone calls on the death of Norman Mailer. There were a lot of calls, perhaps there were too many calls; his morning writing had been interrupted. The Times of London had called, as had NPR, The New York Observer and New York magazine, many of them wishing to be told about a distant night, some 40 years ago, at a jazz club in the Village, where Mailer, drunk and stoned on marijuana, had climbed on top of a senator’s wife. Mr. Breslin, who had been there too that night but wasn’t drunk — at least not yet — hung his head and sighed a bit each time the night came up. Surely there were better things to talk about than Mailer’s ancient antics. He growled, quoted Auden, then sent the poor reporters on their way.

“I was doing fine till Norman died,” he growled again, hanging up. Mr. Breslin’s growl is actually more of a squawk and not unlike how a pintail duck might sound if it smoked a pack a day through a kazoo. He couldn’t really blame the press for calling, even if these interruptions had him on the edge of a troubling realization. “Who’s around for them to go to anymore? That’s the thing: I’m the last guy left.”

Standing slowly, he moved into the kitchen, where he took a cup of coffee and his daily bowl of oatmeal and decided that it really might be true. After all, Jack Newfield, that old bum, was dead. Murray Kempton, the Henry James of the newsroom, was dead. George Plimpton was dead, old Arthur Schlesinger was dead — even Jose Torres, the champ, was almost dead, living down in Puerto Rico now with half an addled brain. “Everybody’s dead,” Mr. Breslin said, and soon enough the phone rang yet again. It was NPR calling back, and he shouted at his wife, Ronnie Eldridge, “Tell ’em I died.”

At 77 and in truculent good health, Jimmy Breslin has clearly not died and has even, with some notable exceptions, managed to avoid that quasi death by documentary, a process by which an otherwise vital personality is turned into a bag of talking bones on PBS. His home office, in a penthouse overlooking Central Park, is strewn with the work junk of a busy New York writer. Dirty dishes, presumably from breakfast, lay beside the galleys of his latest book. His Pulitzer citation (for distinguished commentary in 1986) sits on a shelf beside a shot of Tip O’Neill swirling his booze. A valid New York press card — ’08 ready — lies on the desk with a wooden back scratcher and Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Jackie Robinson. There is a photograph, from 1969, of Mr. Breslin, in his bloated prime, posing with a kinky-headed Mailer as they prepare their celebrated run for city office. Seven crumpled singles sit atop a fax sent to him that morning, personally it seems, from Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York.

But death, of course, is not the only hazard facing aging writers; nostalgia also kills, especially the newspaperman whose business is today. Mr. Breslin’s bona fides as a newspaperman need no introduction: there was the early stint as a copy boy at The Long Island Press; triumphant sojourns at The New York Herald Tribune and The Daily News; the brutal beating at the hands of a Lucchese family gangster who didn’t much care for an article he once wrote; and, of course, the chilling receipt of a loony letter from David Berkowitz, the serial killer known as Son of Sam.

And with a past like that, it would perhaps be excusable if Mr. Breslin simply churned out pieces from the time capsule and sat back on his journalistic laurels. While his last few books were tepidly received and did not attract the typical strong reaction, he remains quite busy — as a crank, a scold, a public nuisance, a curmudgeon of the foulmouthed Irish mold, who has made a cottage industry out of keeping alive the grit, vitality and maverick spirit of New York’s phone-booth-and-fedora days.

The new book, for example, “The Good Rat” — a reminiscence on his encounters with the mob, due to be released next month — opens with the enormously pleasing image of a young Mr. Breslin practicing his Mafia kisses in the mirror so as not to disappoint the gangsters on the street. (It also drops an expletive in its fourth subordinate clause.) He is nearing completion of a short biography of Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who hired Jackie Robinson. While both might seem like works of pure nostalgia, they are in fact rather current.

“The Good Rat” uses, as its through line, a discussion of last year’s “Mafia cops” corruption case in Brooklyn; in the Rickey book he even tries to break a little news. Beyond that he has a writing credit coming for a show about corrupt police officers soon to be produced by the television writer David Milch, and he is the subject of a not-yet-staged Off Broadway one-man show. “There’s no end, no timeouts — not if you’re working,” Mr. Breslin said. “My career consists of paying the bills.”

Much as he has done throughout that career, Mr. Breslin rises early each day, at 6 a.m., first to swim at the Reebok gym near his apartment, then to read the city’s daily papers, then finally to write. It is a modus vivendi much helped by the fact that, in the early 1980s, he gave up his Olympic bouts of drinking, following, he claims, an epic bender with Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan resulting in a hangover of such destructive force that he was still crippled after three days.

These days he no longer boasts a beat reporter’s liver or his formerly molecular-level knowledge of New York. For years Mr. Breslin was inarguably the best-sourced newsman in the city, though his network of informants in the mayor’s office, the Police Department, the union halls and Democratic political clubs has, by way of death, retirement and the criminal justice system, in large part shriveled up.

Still, on this morning as on most, he took a few spare moments after breakfast to engage in a pleasant round of phone calls with those who remain and who might include, on any given day, Morty Matz, eminence grise of the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, or Marvyn Kornberg, defense lawyer in residence in Queens. Mr. Breslin also still maintains a tangible connection to the underworld, and following his coffee he went to the bedroom where he soon had Sal Reale, the Gambino family’s onetime man at Kennedy Airport, on the phone.

“Sal, how are you?” Mr. Breslin said, lounging on a pillow. “What do you hear on Queens Boulevard today? ... Oh boy ... oh boy. ... Who’s the judge? ... Sal, I got a guy here from The New York Times he wants to talk to you. ... No, on me, not you. ... It’s over art, it ain’t over crime. ... No, he’s not gonna ask you who you shot.”

Mr. Reale, living in the suburbs of Las Vegas, waited on the line.

“The thing about Jimmy Breslin, O.K.,” he said, “is he’s a guy when he walked into a lounge on Queens Boulevard none of the wiseguys got uptight. We always thought he was one of us, O.K.? He could have a cocktail at the bar, O.K., and wasn’t looking to zap you. He brings me up to date on New York City and I tell him all the best-kept secrets in Las Vegas. You know they say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas? Well, what happens in Vegas gets to Jimmy Breslin.”

While Mr. Breslin wrote extensively on New York politics and other aspects of the city’s public life — and also, sometimes forgottenly, on national affairs from Selma to the war in Vietnam — he is perhaps best known for having mined the lives of small-time crooks and losers, of racing touts and amiable rogues like Sal Reale whose lack of stature in the larger world could not disguise a certain depth of heart.

“I think he’d rather spend time with Tony Salerno than Norman Podhoretz,” said Pete Hamill, the editor and writer, placing in one sentence a neocon and a mob boss, both of whom might be troubled by the company.

The best of Mr. Breslin’s work, in numerous columns, was executed in that venerable mode of newspaper writing, the Mock Heroic Deadpan: a prose style in which the author adopts the tone of a Harvard lepidopterist in order to convey events more closely associated with the redemption center at Aqueduct Racetrack.

He was a master of the arch lead sentence: “Among the great education achievements of the year not commented upon by such as James B. Conant was the performance of Fat Thomas’ brother in the Dale Carnegie course at Attica State Prison,” he wrote in The New York Herald Tribune. “He is doing a short bit in Attica for poor usage of a gun.” And he was equally handy with a punch quote: “Money and me had a divorce over this thing,” one of his bookmakers says in another Tribune column, “The Numbers Game.”

As for his subject matter, he claims that he was writing what he knew — he grew up on the J line, on 101st Avenue in Queens — and one suspects that even after the Pulitzer and the penthouse, even after 16 published works, Mr. Breslin still conceives of himself largely as a plucky Irish kid from Jamaica-Ozone Park who might have ended up a loser had John Hay Whitney, the publisher of The Herald Tribune, not offered him a shot at the journalistic big time in 1963.

He certainly looked that part the other morning, riding out to Queens to eat some lunch. He had only just removed the J train baseball cap from his head, and his hair was tangled white. Mr. Breslin, in his deadline days, wore perhaps an extra hundred pounds, most of it strapped across his chest or hanging in a fleshy drinker’s wattle. Now he seemed a different sort of presence, a small man in a tieless suit and glasses, barking out directions from the back seat of a car.

Famously surly — “There’s Breslin, then there’s Jimmy,” Mr. Hamill said; “Jimmy is a wonderful human being, and Breslin, well, he’s Breslin” — he manages to give the impression of a moody older uncle, an otherwise kindly soul who might at any moment suddenly erupt. In fact he did erupt, driving past the former Pep McGuires, an old Queens Boulevard haunt that is now a Mexican restaurant. “We brought a horse in there one night!” he shouted from the rear.

At a trattoria (it used to be a diner) across the street from the Queens County Courthouse, Mr. Breslin ordered tuna on a roll, was told they didn’t have that, and muttered to himself how things had changed. He was consoled by a spinach salad and the eclectic clientele: two young Hispanic women occupied by iPods, a black man in a bow tie and a family of Indians who, by the looks of things and by their presence near the courthouse, had probably done something very wrong, he said.

Perhaps it was the people, who were Queens people, and thus in some sense his people, or perhaps it was the shadow of the hulking hall of justice just across the street, but Mr. Breslin’s thoughts began to turn upon the ironclad idea that you can always find a story whenever someone fails. “Murray Kempton wrote the best column anybody ever wrote,” he said. “After Don Larsen’s perfect game, he went to interview the losing pitcher, Salvatore Maglie; he pitched the best game of his life, and still he lost. That’s what you did. You went to the loser’s locker room after the fight.”

A waiter took his plate, and Mr. Breslin quietly suggested a walk across the street. It seemed that, in the way of these things, Sal Reale’s nephew had a court appearance in another half-hour (“Oh boy. Who’s the judge?”) on various criminal allegations.

It was a Friday afternoon at 4 o’clock, and the empty marble hallways made your feet sound loud. Then, from a corner, stepped a stocky man with heavy eyebrows and a light gray courthouse suit.

“Mr. Breslin,” he said. “You remember me — Sal Reale’s nephew.” They moved away and spoke in whispers near the wall.

Later he would say: “I come out here for a cup of coffee, and I’m dragged back into the past — it’s like I never left. Courthouse troubles.”

For now, however, Jimmy Breslin stood there, his hands at his waist, his glasses at the far edge of his nose, frowning, nodding, making soft uh-huh sounds, listening to yet another loser, another one of them, of him.


Reading New York
Mobsters, Poets and the Trial of a Whale

Published: January 20, 2008

JIMMY BRESLIN stared helplessly out the window of his office in The Daily News one afternoon in the 1970s, seeking inspiration — through a haze of cigar smoke — from the nondescript facade of a building across 42nd Street.

He betrayed no visible brain activity, not even a flicker of the genius that infused his columns, one of which was close to being overdue. I know because I was his anxious editor.

But his blank stare was an illusion. Mr. Breslin was eavesdropping. He was mining a rich lode of gossip from his assistant, Ann Marie, who was chatting on the telephone outside his office door.

Mr. Breslin is a very good listener. Almost imperceptibly, his head began to turn until he finally fixed his gaze on Ann Marie, and in one of those unheralded but defining moments in journalism, a series of columns about the underside of life in the Big City — with the names changed to protect the guilty and Mr. Breslin himself — was born.

In “The Good Rat” (Ecco Press, $24.95), Mr. Breslin recalls another of his eureka moments, which took place in a Brooklyn courtroom where he had gone to research a book about two cops turned Mafia hit men. One was fat and sad-eyed, the other thin and listless.

“Am I going to write 70,000 words about these two?” Mr. Breslin asked himself. “Rather I lay brick.” But when the trial started two years ago, he recalls, an unknown name on the prosecution witness list “turns the proceeding into something that thrills: the autobiography of Burton Kaplan, criminal.” Mr. Breslin had found his subject, a Brooklyn Tech dropout, father of a judge, who was “a great merchant, too great, and after he sold everything that did belong to him, he sold things that did not.”

And lucky for us. His latest book ingeniously synthesizes Burton Kaplan’s bizarre biography, his testimony, and Mr. Breslin’s memoirs of his own earlier exploits and encounters with characters who punctuated his columns but are mostly dead, imprisoned, or hidden in witness protection programs.

“You can drink with legitimate people if you want,” Mr. Breslin writes of his social circle, adding that he is a product of nights when the mobster Fat Tony Salerno looked around the Copacabana, scowled at him and asked, “ ‘Didn’t you go where I told you to?’ ”

Where had Mr. Breslin been told to go? That morning, he had encountered Mr. Salerno at a court engagement where the mobster complained, “You look like a bum,” and slipped him an East Side tailor’s business card.

“Tell him you want a suit made right away so you don’t make me ashamed I know you,” Mr. Salerno ordered.

The book is cleverly constructed, opening with an annotated cast of characters, and it delivers canny anthropological insights into organized crime (“The feds soon realized all they had to do was follow guys who kiss each other and they’d know the whole Mafia”). Mr. Breslin also criticizes John Gotti for having “violated New York’s revered rush-hour rules when he had Paul Castellano killed in the middle of it.”

Mr. Breslin’s account of a victim who was killed by mistake belies the idea that there are no innocent bystanders. And every page reveals his talent for putting a twinkle in your mind’s eye (the lawyer Bruce Cutler wore “a light khaki summer suit that could have used 10 pounds less to cover”). The book is Jimmy Breslin at his best.


Rogues, Saints and Sam Silverware

Published: November 14, 2004

ON Election Day, Jimmy Breslin published his last regular column for Newsday, offering as consolation to his readers only a cryptic promise to write again "from time to time." Thus ended at least the full-time part of a 40-year career that has made Mr. Breslin perhaps the city's best-known living newspaper columnist.

He wrote for The New York Herald Tribune from 1963 until 1966, for The Daily News from 1976 to 1988, and then for Newsday. His columns were peopled with the prominent, like Hugh Carey, the former governor, but also with shady characters with names like Sam Silverware, Larry Lightfingers and Jerry the Booster, and with normal New Yorkers struggling with crime, poverty and other urban and human ills.

Here, in Mr. Breslin's words, are a few of the people he brought so vividly to life.

Some of Mr. Breslin's characters, like those in the next three excerpts, made recurring appearances in his columns.

Among great educational achievements of the year not commented upon by such as Dr. James B. Conant was the performance of Fat Thomas's brother in the Dale Carnegie course at Attica State Prison. Fat Thomas's brother was awarded the Dale Carnegie Gold Pencil for achievement. He is doing a short bit in Attica for poor usage of a gun.

"They tell me he was beautiful," Fat Thomas says. (New York Herald Tribune)

Marvin the Torch never could keep his hands off somebody else's business, particularly if the business was losing money. Now this is accepted behavior in Marvin's profession, which is arson. But he has a bad habit of getting into places where he shouldn't be and promising too many favors. This is where all his trouble starts. (New York Herald Tribune)

All his life, my friend Mutchie has done the right thing. When somebody gets killed, he sends a big basket of flowers with a nice note saying, "I Am Very Sorry It Had to Come to This." When somebody gets married, Mutchie shows up with an envelope in his hand, even if everybody else stays away because the F.B.I. is making Panavision movies of the invited guests. (New York Herald Tribune)

Mr. Breslin often turned himself into a character, as he did in this example of an annual column he called "People I'm Not Talking to Next Year."

GOLDSTEIN THE PROCESS-SERVER. About a month ago I was walking on Seventh Avenue and this little bum in an overcoat down to his ankles comes up to me. He says, "Pardon me, but didn't I see you last night with Johnny Carson?" I wanted to kiss him. Beautiful. "Yes, you did," I said. "Great," he said, "don't tell me your name. I have your name written down right here." Out of the pocket of his overcoat comes a folded piece of legal paper that said the Chemical Bank had put a lien of $150 on me because I cosigned for another one of Fat Thomas's cars.

"Wear it in health," said Goldstein the Process-Server. (New York Herald Tribune)

Mr. Breslin's wife, invariably referred to as "the former Rosemary Dattolico," was often enlisted for duty in the column.

The woman I live with, the former Rosemary Dattolico, has a mother who believes that we are not properly using punishment as a deterrent to crime. It is her view that many punishments now on the books are not effective, particularly the firing squad. She opposes the firing squad because it is too quick and doesn't hurt enough. (The Daily News)

Mr. Breslin did not rely solely on his cast of colorful characters. In many columns, he chronicled the lives of the regular folk who were a mainstay of his readership.

In the morning yesterday, there was knocking on the door of Ann Quiller, who lives in public housing on Graham Avenue in Brooklyn.

"Miss," a boy's voice called out.

"What do you want?" Ann Quiller called through the door.

"I'm sick, miss."

"Go to a doctor. I'm not a doctor."

"Just a drink of water, miss, I'm sick."

"Go home for your drink of water," Ann Quiller said.

She was unnerved. She had her coat on to go out, and now she had to wait in her apartment until she was sure that the young person outside was not waiting for her in the hallway. The boy's voice had sounded very young, but that sound is another measure that is dangerous to use when you live amid the disarray of Brooklyn in 1981. (The Daily News)

Even when the news was big, Mr. Breslin examined it through the lens of ordinary people. This column was published three days after the crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Here came the Bo Gee, the great Chinese newsboy, through the lashing rain on Second Avenue yesterday afternoon. In the bottom of his wire shopping cart there were only a few Chinese language papers left and he was saving most of them for the Flower Drum, on 46th, and the Hsin Yu on the next corner. If anybody in either place showed him less than total respect he would take his papers out of the place and leave them all empty-handed. There is one thing about the news business. When you have the hot story, the first thing you do is treat the customer exactly as you should: Make him crawl. (Newsday)

Crime, both organized and disorganized, was a favorite subject of Mr. Breslin's, and he often used his guy-on-the-street sensibility to hilarious effect when covering it.

Peter Chiodo, the fattest guy in world Mafia history, came to federal court in White Plains yesterday to rat on his brethren.

When he was out there as a gangster, Chiodo weighed 547 pounds. People say he used an industrial scale at a Staten Island freight terminal. Then he lied and said he was only 509. When he arrived yesterday, he weighed only 435, although his head still was as big as a boar's.

He came by Abbey Richmond Wheelchair Transportation van. FBI agents spread out, holding up shotguns and automatic rifles and the heaviest pistols made. When a covey of agents and police officers lifted Chiodo, sitting in an oversized wheelchair, out of the van, spectators across the street growled. "What a waste, for a bum like this," a woman said. "Would they do this for my grandmother? Never. Only for a bum." (Newsday)

BOOKS IN BRIEF: FICTION; Dysfunctional Famiglia

Published: May 27, 2001

Jimmy Breslin likes to write about ineptitude -- check out his wonderful account of the hapless 1962 Mets, ''Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?'' or his novel ''The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight,'' based on the life and times of the gangster Joey Gallo -- and thus the mob has always been right up his alley. In I DON'T WANT TO GO TO JAIL: A Good Novel (Little, Brown, $24.95), Breslin focuses on Fausti the Fist Dellacava, a former boxer who runs a Greenwich Village-based mob family, and his nephew, also named Fausti, who is desperately searching for a way to go legit -- he's looking for a real job. They do have one thing in common, though. Both are doing their best to stay out of prison. The Fist, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the gangster Vincent the Chin Gigante, right down to mumbling inanities and roaming the streets in his pajamas and bathrobe, chooses the insanity route to avoid the slammer, while Fausti goes so far as to change his name legally to Blanfort G. Melton and become a partner in a business offering Mob Star trading cards. Breslin wants to explain why the mob of Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky has fallen on such hard times lately -- most of its so-called leaders are languishing in jail -- and, for the most part, he's successful. But as a novel, ''I Don't Want to Go to Jail'' is flawed, often reading more like a series of colorful newspaper columns than a cohesive story. Still, Breslin's trademarks are all here: deft observations, sharp characterizations and wit. Charles Salzberg
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Bishop Breslin

Published: August 15, 2004

By Jimmy Breslin.
239 pp. Free Press. $26.

It must be a tiring job, being Jimmy Breslin. Chasing priests accused of sexual abuse through the courts, harassing an insurance company to pay for a poor man's grave, introducing his friend Eugene Kennedy to his friend Jacqueline Onassis: it's all in a day's work. For the last few years, in the column he still writes for Newsday, that work has often consisted of exposing the ''pedophiles and pimps'' of the Roman Catholic Church.

''I am trying to write and I get a phone call from a woman whose son was sexually abused and now, even with the passing years, cannot recover,'' Breslin writes in ''The Church That Forgot Christ,'' his ninth book of nonfiction (he has also written six novels). ''Or the mail in the office has a letter, a postcard about a rape. I am in the daily news business for so many years and I can handle all occurrences. Two mobsters shot in Brooklyn. I am out on the street. Breslin makes all editions.''

Pretty much all you need to know about this book -- and Jimmy Breslin, too, but you probably already know about him -- is in that paragraph. Its aims are modest yet honorable, and its empathy seems genuine. But in the end, the book comes back to its true subject, Jimmy Breslin.

His solution to the crisis facing Catholics in ''The Church That Forgot Christ,'' then, makes perfect sense. He will start his own church and install himself as bishop. His friend Danny Collins will help out. His sermons will be about the need for better posture and low-income housing, and he will lecture the pope about his misguided views on abortion and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. ''While my ambition may be difficult to put into effect,'' he writes, ''it throbs with noble energy.''

Once upon a time, Breslin might have ridiculed the author of that sentence. Of course, all columnists adopt personas, and all face the risk of being swallowed whole by their alter egos; Molly Ivins must rue the day she started writing in a Texas accent. But what is tolerable in a newspaper column quickly becomes tiresome at book length.

Here Breslin's persona quivers with righteous anger, leavened only by a casual bigotry that is no less shocking for being directed at his own. The church's scandal fits his prejudices perfectly. ''Because of their church,'' he writes, ''the Irish think less and boast more than any race ever to hit the ground.'' Because the Irish ''put all their talents into writing insurance policies and traffic tickets in New York,'' according to him, ''they were left griping about all the Jews who were doctors and who took over the television and movie business.''

Breslin may not be subtle, but his writing remains vivid. (His 442-word obituary for his daughter, published in Newsday in June, is an understated masterpiece.) His portraits of two priests -- John Powis, the saintly former pastor of a poor Brooklyn parish, and William Murphy, the self-important bishop of Rockville Centre on Long Island -- are well observed if pat. Often it seems as if there is no anecdote he will not retell, no name he will not drop, in the service of his mission. (Mario Cuomo has a cameo, as does Mother Teresa.)

Maybe Breslin needs this shtick. And certainly hundreds of thousands of loyal readers look forward to it on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday mornings. But it hardly qualifies as commentary. Of course there is good and evil in the church, and we would all be better off with more of the former and less of the latter. It is also beyond argument that the sexual abuse scandal has exposed the hypocrisy and immorality of the Catholic hierarchy. No one with even a passing familiarity with the church, and that includes a few Irish Catholics, needs Jimmy Breslin to make that case.


When Jimmy Breslin's Life, Columns and Books Passed Before His Eyes

Published: September 12, 1996

A Memoir
By Jimmy Breslin
219 pages. Little, Brown & Company. $22.95

Although its title may sound funny on first reading, Jimmy Breslin is far from joking when he calls this memoir ''I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me.'' For one thing, the focus of his story is the surgery he had done on a brain aneurysm that was discovered by pure luck in the autumn of 1994.

Aside from the obvious danger that the arterial bubble might burst before he could have it treated, there was the riskiness of the procedure itself. Mr. Breslin understandably worried that his livelihood might be threatened. The surgeon he finally chose -- Robert Spetzler, head of the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix -- explained to him: ''If you're a writer, we have to take that into consideration. Your skills come from certain parts of the brain. If you did something else for a living, then we would think in another way.''

''So,'' Mr. Breslin caustically concludes, ''if I was a moving man and it came to a decision between shoulder mobility and the objective case, I would be pushing a piano and saying 'between you and I.' ''

He is therefore genuinely grateful when he survives the operation (of course he survives; we wouldn't be reading his account if he hadn't) and when he finds his language, memory, judgment, strong opinions and ability to write a newspaper column all intact.

''Suddenly, I decided that the entire journey, this dangerous operation on the only brain I have, turned out pretty well,'' he concludes. ''I want to thank God for letting me live, and I want to thank my brain for remembering me.''

For another thing, the brain that Mr. Breslin thanks is one he admires considerably. When he learns what will be done to him in Phoenix -- that his skull will be opened and a pair of pliers inserted into his ''very brain'' -- his life passes before his eyes: his troubled childhood; his rise as a newspaperman; the death of his first wife, Rosemary, and his marriage to Ronnie Eldridge, subsequently elected to the New York City Council; the development of his strong and quirky opinions, and the subterranean persistence of his Catholic faith, allowing him to achieve a state of grace that made him unafraid of his surgery.

His life passes before his eyes, and so do a number of his old columns and books, the material of which he liberally cribs: taking a helicopter flight with the Beatles; being hung over and thirsty at Martin Luther King's ''I Have a Dream'' speech; getting to know the winsome gangsters who became the subject of so many of his columns.

He is proud of his newspaper career, which in 1986 won him a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary. ''I invented the news column form and other papers immediately went out and hired imitators with Irish names. And at great prices. I was responsible for Irish names getting more money than any union since the founding of the wire lathers. To get here, I had to beat a rough, bleak, shrinking business.''

He has good right to be proud. But in these pages the transitions to the past are sometimes forced and hard to follow (like the words in occasional sentences he strives to make eloquent simply by creating unlikely juxtapositions).

And he credits himself a little too much for his contribution to contemporary expression. His book titles ''Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?'' and ''The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight'' may be favorites of television commentators and headline and caption writers. But they haven't really become part of our idiom in the way that ''The Right Stuff'' and ''Catch-22'' have.

Still, enough of the writing in this memoir has the best of the Breslin touch: ''Straight out, where the hills rose into mountains, the sky was charcoal gray and pink and blue, with jet contrails mixed into it like finger painting.'' His recollection of Malcolm X's assassination leads to an aside on murder-scene chalk outlines as a poignant metaphor of human accomplishments: ''All as meaningless as chalk.'' And in his exploration of the relation between mind and consciousness, he succeeds amusingly in reducing the subject to a Runyonesque baseball metaphor, concluding, ''Consciousness does not score.''

But most powerfully of all, he revisits his own surgery, and as he says of his most panic-stricken experience meeting deadlines, ''the thing suddenly explains itself in the writing of it.'' As you read you hold your breath and fight not to avert your eyes. ''Spetzler reached for the piece of white skull,'' he writes. ''He fitted it back into the skull like the last brick in a wall. Two miniature hinges now had to be put into the skull by a resident using a screwdriver. The idea is, if they have to go back in someday, there will be none of this screaming sawing. You'll open my skull like a front gate.''

''That was it.'' The doctor ''straightens and says, 'Thank you very much.' And he walks out for his next operation.''

With his high-wire balancing account of an incredibly delicate procedure, Mr. Breslin gives you a dizzying glimpse of great depths, both of his own brain under a microscope and of his gratitude to the medicine that saved his life.




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