Jimmy Breslin, facing death, writes about it

September 15, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

"I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me," by Jimmy Breslin. Little, Brown. 219 pages. $22.95.

Reporters, even those with ink for blood, are mortal. When a good one, a splendid one like the New York columnist Jimmy Breslin, confronts his own death from a brain aneurysm, he recognizes a hell of a good peg on which to hang a memoir.

This one is a short memoir, as memoirs go. It's only 219 pages and hardly comprises the sum of Breslin's parts. But as the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author ("The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight") contemplates death or permanent disability from a sudden bursting in a brain that "has given me whatever of life I have seen," he shows us a side seldom demonstrated: a philosophical Breslin, a Breslin humbled by the thought of his demise.

As when he discusses the brain: "It weighs three pounds. It has no nickname. Your hand is your paw; the heart is a ticker. The brain is the brain. If I had to make a bet I would say that the mind is a ghost from God that comes from the sky and lives in the brain."

Breslin recalls his childhood and the mother who never kissed him, the death of his first wife, the courting of his second. There is, of course, much about death. "We fetch news each day of accidents and arrogance, of dancing and drama, fire and fame, lies and love, mayhem and murder. Nobody brings news of your own death."

Particularly affecting is a passage that takes off from the chalk outlines cops draw where bodies fall on city streets. "I never noticed," Breslin writes, "the chalk outline of my body that was only a few feet away from me every day for so long. I was pulled back from it by a miracle I could not see."

The literary offspring of Damon Runyon, Breslin fills his memoirs with the guys and dolls of his New York. His sentences are short and punchy. His metaphors are those of sports. His humor is bawdy. His style is a stream-of-consciousness stacking of one ,, flashback atop another. It's like dialogue in a tavern. He'll be discussing the Roman Catholic Church, for example, and then ** remember the priest who gave John F. Kennedy last rites in Dallas. And then, remembering Dallas, an anecdote involving Jacqueline Kennedy. And then ...

Off we go into the wild blue yonder. It makes for disorderly reading, a defect that is overcome by Breslin's wonderful talent as a teller of stories, stories that revolve around his considerable menagerie of characters - Casey Stengel, Marvin the Torch, Marvin Throneberry - some of whom we've met before.

The story ends happily, of course, after a harrowing operation in Phoenix performed to Schubert's "Trout Quintet." Breslin is musing about the Incas in Peru and the many wives of Klein the Lawyer as he slides into unconsciousness. The rest of the surgery is described from the notes taken routinely by the hospital staff.

Earlier, Breslin had thanked his brain "for what it has done for me." Awake and still able to think and write, he thanks God and his brain again, this time for "remembering me." It makes for a rather contrived title, but then reporters don't write their own headlines.

Mike Bowler is The Sun's education editor. The son and stepson of Montana reporters, he graduated from Columbia College in New York in 1963, the year after Breslin launched his column. He's been reading him since.

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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