David Thomson, reviewing “Just Enough
Liebling” in the Dec. 13 issue of The Nation, makes a candid confession of
the sort you rarely ever hear from a reviewer. “I am bound to admit,” he writes, “that before this
assignment I honored the name without knowing the books.” But Thomson (biographer, film
scholar, movie critic, essayist, and novelist) is nothing if not a quick study.
In “a few weeks” he became a Liebling connoiseur, “tracking down odd titles” and
discovering a writer “who can hardly write a sentence without making you smile.” Thomson
proves his connoiseurship by distilling the essence of
Liebling to this: “[T]he joke lies so often in the noble way splendid prose and
wry stoicism have drawn a brief veil over all the ordinary forms of hell.”
Clive James and James Wolcott combined would have a hard time beating that description.
Then Thomson adds the pièce de résistance: “It is a sprightliness in the face of
everyday horror that held Mark Twain together.” Pardon a mixed metaphor (readers who know
Liebling’s devotion to food and boxing will forgive me), but that’s dessert topped by a straight
right to the chin.