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Jimmy Breslin: He Couldn't Care More

June 07, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Jimmy Breslin may not be the world's last passionate man, but you have the feeling that he's one of a group so small it could convene at a table in the Automat--and it was never that large a group to begin with.

Breslin, who won a Pulitzer Prize not long ago for his three-a-week columns in the New York Daily News, is large, profane, restless, enthusiastic and urgent. You can't imagine him being indifferent about anything--from breakfast eggs to the state of the New York Police Department or the world. He strides through the dress extras in the Polo Lounge like the man in charge.

He was in Los Angeles earlier this week to see a few dozen close friends and work as his own advance man on his new novel, "Table Money," a multi-generational Queens family chronicle that is tough, funny and tragic and is getting reviews like even Breslin can't believe. It is a main summer selection of the Literary Guild.

"My editor says they're the best reviews he's read on any book in five years," Breslin says with a grin no wider than the Irish sea.

They certainly are fine: "I haven't read a better American novel this year," "a potent, affecting, entertaining book, Breslin's best yet," "a superb experience, the kind of novel that comes along rarely," "one of the best American writers of our time."

And those are just the mixed reviews. Not true, actually--they have tended to be unabashed and unreserved, with special praise for Delores, a sandhog's wife who emerges as the central figure in the book, the survivingest of a bundle of born survivors.

"You always end up with a woman," Breslin says. "You cover a trial and the guy goes off to the detention room to begin the long trip, and you're left in the hall of the courthouse with the wife.

"If I go back over 10 years of columns at the Daily News, a good 50% would be about women. But most newspaper guys when they come to write a novel figure it's got to be about a man, a cop or somebody.

"Men don't write about women. Styron had one, I suppose--Sophie. But I'd like to do my next novel in the first person from inside a woman's head."

Mrs. Breslin, the former Ronnie Myers Eldridge, laughed merrily from across the table. "She doesn't believe me," Breslin explained. "But I've lived with two women for a total of 31 years. I know a little about them."

Breslin grew up in the shadow of New York's Aqueduct race track. He went to work as a copy boy at the Long Island Daily Press when he was 17 (he is now 56), aiming to be a sports writer.

"You got in all the games free. There were all those free drinks. I used to see the press box at Aqueduct. That was for me."

In time, he did everything on newspapers, including night makeup. He was at the New York Journal-American in 1963, about ready to quit in favor of book and magazine writing. A flavorful piece he did for Life on Early Wynn's struggles to pitch his 300th victory caught the eye of Jim Bellows at the New York Herald-Tribune, who persuaded Breslin to start a five-day-a-week column about the city he seemed to know better than anybody else, especially and tellingly at the working-stiff level.

Born in Queens, Breslin lived there until his beloved first wife, Rosemary Dattolico (about whom he wrote with wonderful eloquence), died in 1981. He remarried late in 1982 and moved to Mrs. Eldridge's apartment on Central Park West. Between them they have nine children.

"Table Money" took 10 years of research and writing. "I wrote 150 pages of magnificent stuff," Breslin says. "It was a wonderful opening; it made the earth ripple."

The trouble was that Breslin couldn't figure out for years how to join it with what was to follow. Meanwhile, he wrote two other books, then started again on "Table Money" about three years ago.

He wrote on non-column days and days off, fearing always that it would sound like a succession of disjointed 1,000-word, column-length bursts. It is a flaw he finds in what he thinks should have been his best book before now, "World Without End, Amen."

A friend in the clothing business, Irving Selbst, gave Breslin the daytime use of his apartment and he did his writing there.

"Irving admitted that Jackie Collins was the only author he read, but he liked the idea of having a writer around," Breslin says. "He kept saying, 'Put in more sex; why don't you copy from Jackie?' The apartment was empty when I began; Irving furnished it around me."

Selbst, who played a walk-on in the film of Breslin's "The Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight," has a small part in Woody Allen's next film. But he died before he could bask in the success of the book Breslin wrote in his living room.

When Breslin finished the manuscript, it ran to more than 1,000 pages. "My editor, Corlies Smith at Ticknor & Fields, read it and handed me the first 150 pages and said, 'We can do without these, of course.'

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