By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak
Long before the Bolivian soldiers marched through Jay McInerney’s 1984 coke-infused “Bright Lights, Big City,” the demi-Bohemians of John Leonard’s gin-addled “The Naked Martini” stood on the precipice that was 1964, straddling the wall between the space-age bachelor-pad early ’60s and the mind-blowing latter part of the decade, hovering between semi-conciousness and heightened consciousness, the strictures of the ’50s and the freedom of the late ’60s. Which drug might be more dangerous or more enlightening is open to debate — pick your poison — but there’s no question which is the higher literary achievement.
I was drawn by the lurid title of Leonard’s first novel — he’d go on to become better known as a critic of books, as well as television and culture in general, starting with a stint as editor of the New York Times Book Review and going on to write for or edit at the Nation, New York Magazine, Newsday, Harper’s, Life, and many others, also book-ending his career with tenures as drama and literature director at KPFA, the Pacifica station in Berkeley, and on CBS Sunday Morning, surfing the American lit-crit universe from alt-cult to mainstream. “The Naked Martini” telescopes this trajectory in the hero’s meanderings from downtown to uptown while earning his bread in midtown. From the first paragraph (the book’s first part is heralded as “The Gladiators”), which finds Leonard’s protagonist, Brian Kelly, adjourned with his superiors and colleagues from the Madison Avenue ad firm of Schaefner, Kornfeld, Atworthy & Gannymede (SKAG) to Tommy’s Bar — “in the Lexington Avenue foothills,” and which lights up “like a refrigerator” when you enter — already highly marinated in martinis, I expected a Mad-Menesque frolic, and was looking forward to relishing it, not least of all because I’d be doing so from temporary digs in the upper Lexington Avenue foothills some 46 years later.
In fact, young Kelly spends very little time at work; it’s evidently just a landing pad and allowance furnisher for a young man’s first New York follies, which will take him from his downtown Greenwich Village pad and the neighbors and friends who seem to leech off him, as a relatively solid nucleus of their world, to Spanish Harlem, where he picks a fight with some local hoods that lands him in the hospital and gets him fired from the ad agency (a midnight ride on a pilfered horse up Sixth Avenue doesn’t help), and even far afield to Princeton, and the wedding which provides, if not a moral compass for himself, at least a modern morality play, juxtaposing the Jewish bride and her family (they drink Manhattans, reflecting American Jews’ penchant for candied cherries and other sweet concoctions) with the WASP family of the groom Cranston (martinis, Protestant dry), effectively Brian’s Gatsby, whose Bohemian beard ultimately loses out to his patrician soul. (One Princetonian quibble: Leonard places the wedding at the Nassau Inn, but his description — particularly of the hotel’s proximity to the golf course — sounds more like the Princeton Inn, which I know only because I lived there after it became a dormitory, sharing similarly libidinous adventures on the same pastoral terrain.)
This exquisitely narrated penultimate act could almost stand on its own as a quintessentially cross-cultural American drama to match any in Phillip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus”: It ends with the bride — who obligated the groom to marry her after he and his buddies essentially raped her by getting her drunk — announcing to the assembled Protestant royalty, which has more or less stiffed her the whole night, that she actually doesn’t know if Cranston is the father, recounting the fateful night and the many candidates. As for Brian, he ends up being purged: In lieu of the constant stream of Tommy’s martinis, Cranston’s permanently inebriated mother serves him warm gin, insisting he drink though it’s only breakfast time, too early even for Brian, who sneaks out to empty the gin into potted plants, tossing a growing pile of emptied glasses under his car seat. He’s emptying, but as is often the case, not in time: Returning to the city with Jill, the down-to-earth upstairs neighbor whose unemployed leech of a husband abandoned her after she had their baby, he insists on sex even though she’s not in the mood, and doesn’t accede to her need to talk, so she gives up on him. By the time he realizes how much he needs her — after a see-the-light excursion to his preppy fiancé’s New England estate which he flees on a midnight train — it’s too late; Jill’s errant husband has returned, she informs Brian when he calls her.
The ending seems, at least on the surface, almost a throw-away:
“He hung up. Trying to extract himself from the telephone booth, he got his tie caught in the folding door and almost choked himself to death. This was because he was casual, and didn’t wear a tieclip.”
Besides the absence of forced poetry, what I love about this ending — and several other flights of fanciful philosophical thought in “The Naked Martini” — is precisely its semi-obliqueness, which is also what sets it apart from later struggling to come of age in New York first novels such as “Bright Lights, Big City,” and what would later distinguish Leonard as a critic and creator of offbeat rhapsodies in cultural criticism. This is also what elevates his first book — published when he was just 25 — to the level of literature, unlike the books of the ’80s literary brat pack trio of McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, and Tama Janowitz, which left little to mystery. Anyone can make a martini (Brian’s recipe: Seven parts gin to one part dry vermouth, plus a sliver of lemon); few can concoct literature. (Rarer still those who, like Leonard, could concoct literature out of criticism.)
Post-script, 2-21-2017: Re-reading Leonard’s last paragraph and final sentence, it strikes me that despite the deliberately throwaway tone, this conclusion is not so oblique as it seems. Indeed it evokes another conclusion by another 25-year-old writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and might well be an offering at his shrine and before the grail of the Great American Novel “The Great Gatsby” has represented for succeeding generations. Towards the end of ‘Gatsby,’ the narrator, Nick Carroway, observes, after Gatsby fatally takes the rap for Daisy Buchanan’s running down Myrtle Wilson, that Tom and Daisy were “careless people…. [T]hey smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….” Thus Leonard’s finish seems almost a comic, distorted echo and clin d’oeil commentary on ‘Gatsby”s universe: the absence of a tie-clip contrasting with Gatsby’s many-colored shirts, Brian Kelly’s rather haphazard if not downright botched efforts to protect the women in his universe from the despoiling of other men ultimately defeated by a casualness that almost kills him.
I also can’t help but wonder what John Leonard the erstwhile television critic and astute cultural observer would have had to say about the nexus of these two realms in the cavalcade of Trumperies.