Book Review: “Breslin: Essential Writings”

Book Review: Breslin: Essential Writings, edited by Dan Barry. The Library of America. 2024. 723 pages. $40.

Review by David Daniel

[This review originally ran on The Arts Fuse website]

The idea of columnists like Breslin as “deadline artists” is apt. The task was coming up with an idea, tracking it down, then giving it a narrative spark, all ahead of a ticking clock as the drop-deadline for the next edition loomed.

In the late 1960s, as his comic crime novel The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight was about to be published, the movie rights already sold, Jimmy Breslin announced that he was giving up the newspaper column he’d been writing 3-4 times weekly for many years, first in the New York Herald Tribune and then the New York Post. He was tired of seeing his “stuff” on the subway floor, he said. It was a good Breslin exit line; but the breakaway didn’t last. Having people’s feet on his “stuff” meant their eyes were on it, too. In those days a large New York City paper could have two million daily readers, and a million more on Sunday. With his name recognition, Breslin helped drive those numbers. After time away for other projects, he joined the staff of the Daily News, where he stayed for many years.

Now, the Library of America has brought out a generous selection of his writing—some 700 pages of Breslin in his various modes, including two book-length works and a wide-ranging assortment of his columns, selected by New York Times editor and columnist Dan Barry.

Widely regarded as the best in the game of telling stories of New Yorkers and others, with an unflinching eye, Breslin was a New York guy in full. Born in Queens in 1928, when he was six his father did a “paternal fade”—stepping out for an errand and gone, smoke. At ten he found his mother holding a pistol to her head. He wrestled it away, and the incident was never spoken of again. In high school he played football, boxed a little, and began his career in journalism as a copyboy.

Fast forward to the heavyset, cigar chomping, F-bombing character out of Damon Runyon he became in the post-war years, for whom writing a newspaper column was a contact sport. With his messy dark hair and tie draped around his neck like a striped snake he was never going be mistaken for Pete Hamill, his suave contemporary and only legitimate challenger to Breslin’s journalistic primacy. He never learned to drive, so his method was to walk around and talk to people, take notes, cogitate, and then write to make deadline, which he never missed. He could be bellicose at times, confrontational, but he was of the belief that a journalist has an obligation to readers and the community, and he possessed an indelible empathy for the common person.

His spectrum was broad, and he had a knack for being on scene for big stories. He was present when Malcolm X was shot; and later Bobby Kennedy. He filed dispatches from wherever history was being made: with people marching fifty miles from Selma to the capitol steps in Montgomery in troubled Alabama; Vietnam; England (when Churchill was in hospital dying); Ireland during the “Troubles”; the Mideast during more troubles. But there was never any doubt about his home turf, and no one felt the city’s pulse more acutely. In columns covering Broadway Joe Namath, the closing of the Stork Club, the hunt for the “Son of Sam” serial killer, the AIDS epidemic, and the railroading of the Central Park Five, he allows the events and people—always the people—to speak for themselves.

The idea of columnists like Breslin—and Hamill, Mike Royko, and others—as “deadline artists” is apt. The task was coming up with an idea, tracking it down, then giving it a narrative spark, all ahead of a ticking clock as the drop-deadline for the next edition loomed. On Dec. 8, 1980, Breslin was home asleep when he got word that John Lennon had been shot. Hustling in from Queens, he sussed that the story might be with the NYPD cops who’d rushed the mortally wounded Lennon to the hospital. Two hours later, his column “Are You John Lennon?” was ready to hit the streets.

In November 1963, in the wake of the JFK assassination, Breslin’s story was about the ER surgeon at Parkland Memorial Hospital who attempted to save the President’s life. A few days later, in D.C. for the funeral, rather than follow the crowd, Breslin wrote about Clifton Pollard, the gravedigger at Arlington National Cemetery who dug JFK’s grave. Titled “It was an Honor” (Pollard’s words when asked about his lonely task), it is one of Breslin’s best known pieces, used in journalism courses to make a point about avoiding the scrum of journalists and finding an angle. Try reading it without tears.

A sequence of columns from spring of 1985, begins innocuously enough: “At the start, it was over nothing, an alleged $10 sale of pot on a street corner in Queens, and now it has turned into a case that could change the system of law enforcement used in this city.” Breslin tells the story of an 18-year-old Black man who is taken off a street corner one night by six white cops, hustled down to a precinct where he is electrically shocked multiple times. After being held incommunicado for hours, he is finally arraigned. His mother, who hasn’t been told a thing, retains a lawyer, the DA gets involved, and the medical examiner identifies the marks on the young man’s body as electrical burns of a kind that would be made with a cattle prod. Breslin is on the story, and his columns exposing the blatant police brutality and concluding with a smackdown of the police commissioner, who stayed suspiciously absent during the events and ensuing uproar, make compulsive reading.

Most prescient is “Trump: The Master of the Steal,” a column from June 1990. By that point Trump was already facing tax scams and making every effort to be news. The jukes and fakes that later became his faux Time magazine covers and “leaked” teasers about his wealth are fully formed. Breslin, with a streetcorner nose for stink, IDs The Donald as a publicity vamp taken up by an all-too-compliant media. Per Breslin, he survives by “Corum’s Law” (Bill Corum was a Hearst sportswriter who eventually became head of the Kentucky Derby by convincing Louisville businessmen that the folks attending the horserace expected to lose: “a sucker had to get screwed.”) This law runs every Trump venture, though “instead of horseplayers, the suckers who must get screwed are a combination of news reporters and financial people.” The column concludes that all Trump has to do is stick to the rules on which his old man raised him: “Never use your own money. Steal a good idea and say it’s your own. Do anything to get publicity. Remember that everybody can be bought.” (Italics Breslin’s).

Breslin was unswayed by public opinion; if anything, he helped shape it. In contrast with the current media landscape wherein too often news seems meant to stoke (or stroke) partisans, he operated on the idea that one of the moorings of democracy is a free press, and the old apothegm that newspapers should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. If he saw injustice, even if enacted by friends or people he admired, he called it out. A blue-collar Irish Catholic, his withering take on vainglory and corruption in the New York Archdiocese hit like a grenade. When citizens began to mythologize subway vigilante Bernard Goetz as a hero, Breslin offered made a Jonathan Swiftian proposal to elect Goetz mayor.

Given the traumas of his childhood, and later the deaths of his first wife and two grown daughters, he was no stranger to loss. He understood woundedness. Politically a Democrat, he appealed to people of any stripe because his work was bedded in the common experience. During the AIDs epidemic, when its sufferers were marginalized as “other,” Breslin put names and human faces to the patients and their families, humanizing them, breaking down the convenient “blame the victims” narrative.

One of the recurring words in his columns is “yesterday”—literally “the day before,” which is how fresh the writing is, immediacy rising from it like the smell and smudge of ink off the newsprint. If Breslin brought heart and spine to his columns, he brought humor too, often ironic. Describing Tip O’Neill, who emerges heroic in one of the book-length pieces in the volume, How the Good Guys Finally Won on the dismantling of Nixon after Watergate: “At six-foot-two, and weighing anywhere from two hundred sixty-two pounds to two hundred eighty-two pounds, with a great nose, Tip is not trim enough, nor does he have the outward elegance to cause people to use Latinate words in describing him.” In another context, Rudy Giuliani is “a small man looking for a balcony.” And Breslin often turns the humor on himself. Writing as he faces brain surgery: “I stared at the ceiling and kept seeing the faces of people I absolutely despise. I had promised the priest that I most certainly would stop my habit of slandering and backbiting …. But now here was all this temptation up on the ceiling. I said ‘Oh, lord, if you just let me call one of these people the name he deserves to be called, I will come out and build you a church.’” In 1986, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.

Recently, the Library of America hosted a webinar with Dan Barry, editor of the current volume, along with journalists Mike Barnicle and Mike Lupica. Young men when they first knew the older Breslin, they talked about the inspiration he brought. As Barnicle, Boston’s closest journalist-kin to Breslin, put it, “There was Jimmy Breslin and everyone else.” Of his approach to finding entry to a story, all agreed that by standing at the edge you’ll pick up more, because the center will be crowded with everyone else.

The LOA volume has a detailed timeline of Breslin’s life, and informative jacket flap copy, and a limited index. It would benefit from a foreword to give context, particularly to readers who were too young to know Breslin, but that information is readily available elsewhere. Or forget elsewhere and get all you need from the source, the way Breslin did.


Long ago David Daniel was a columnist for the campus newspaper at the University of Maine, Orono. Drafted in 1969, he served as a military journalist. Later he wrote about books and jazz for the Patriot Ledger.

3 Responses to Book Review: “Breslin: Essential Writings”

  1. Ed DeJesus says:

    No surprises here: Dave Daniel masterly knocks off another terrific book review of an amazing journalist, Jimmy Breslin, whose daily columns in the NY Rags often overshadowed coverage of the Yankees, Joe Namath, and the Knicks. He used to say if you want the better sports story, go to the loser’s locker room. He covered the dismal ’62 Mets when Casey Stengel was their manager and then wrote the book Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?

    As Dave pointed out, Breslin was so close to the immediate action on the streets that a Lucchese Mafia thug brutally beat him, and he was also the target of ‘Son of Sam’ serial killer David Berkowitz, who addressed letters directly to him. Breslin portrayed himself in Spike Lee’s movie, ‘Summer of Sam.’ I saw Breslin host Saturday Night Live (Marvin Hagler was on that night) in ’86 when Robert Downey Jr and Dennis Miller were SNL cast members. After the New York tabloids, Jimmy B was still writing in his waning years for the online Daily Beast and set the bar high for some of my favorites there: Jon Avalon, Charles Blow, and Anna Marie Cox.

    Dave wraps up his excellent praise for Breslin by proudly listing his own ‘early-age journalist by line,’ a testament to his firsthand knowledge of meeting deadlines. It makes me wonder where Dave finds the time to absorb all these books and still pen timely, brilliant reviews. No pressure, huh?

  2. David Daniel says:

    Ed, I enjoyed reading your expanded take on the life and times of Jimmy Breslin. It’s evident from what you write that you too must’ve been a fellow traveler in following his column in the newspapers. To be honest, I wasn’t aware that he’d written, in later years, for the Daily Beast, though I shouldn’t be surprised. He was, in that old term of honor, journalists once used, “a newspaperman.”

    I have a vivid (albeit disturbing) recall of a column that appeared a few days after a demon named Richard Speck murdered eight nursing students in Chicago. As was Breslin’s way, his focus wasn’t on the more lurid elements of the crimes, which were being amply covered by the spot news reporting. Instead, his column, titled (I’m going by memory, b/c I’ve never found it collected anywhere) “The Sleazy World of the Drifter”, looked at the room where he’d lived, the scatterings of his recent life. There was no sensationalizing anything, and in its tally of the mundane, It was both riveting, and disturbing–as it should be.

    Anyway, thanks for your good words.

  3. Jim Provencher says:

    Daniel is someone who has always had his sensitive finger on the cultural pulse down all the years–His reports from
    the front lines and cutting edge are pure gifts to be received and relished! Thank you, & keep attuned….

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