Breslin, James 1930-
BRESLIN, James 1930-
PERSONAL: Born October 17, 1930, in Jamaica, NY; son of James Earl and Frances (a high school teacher and social worker; maiden name, Curtin) Breslin; married Rosemary Dattolico, December 26, 1954 (died, June, 1981); married Ronnie Myers Eldridge (an executive), September 12, 1982; children: (first marriage) James and Kevin (twins), Rosemary, Patrick, Kelly, Christopher; (stepchildren) Daniel, Emily, Lucy Eldridge. Education: Attended Long Island University, 1948-50.
CAREER: Worked as a copyboy at Long Island Press, 1948; sportswriter for several newspapers, including New York Journal-American, all in New York, NY, 1950-63; New York Herald Tribune (later New York World Journal Tribune), New York, NY, began as sportswriter, became columnist, 1963-67; New York Post, New York, NY, columnist, 1968-69; author and freelance journalist in New York, NY, 1969—; New York Daily News, New York, NY, columnist, 1978-88; Newsday, Long Island, NY, columnist, 1988—. Syndicated columnist for Newsday, Long Island, NY, New York Daily News, New York Herald-Tribune, and Paris Tribune. Contributing editor and initiating writer, New York magazine, 1968-71, New Times magazine, 1973. Commentator, WABC-TV, 1968-69, WNBC-TV, 1973. Host of Jimmy Breslin's People, ABC-TV, 1987. Actor in television programs, commercials, and feature film If Ever I See You Again. Democratic primary candidate for president of New York City council, 1969; delegate to Democratic National Convention, 1972.
MEMBER: Writers Guild of America, Screen Actors Guild, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, New York Boxing Writers Association.
AWARDS, HONORS: Best Sports Stories Award, E. P. Dutton & Co., 1961, for magazine piece "Racing's Angriest Young Man"; award for general reporting, Sigma Delta Chi, and Meyer Barger Award, Columbia University, both 1964, both for article on the death of President John F. Kennedy; New York Reporters Association Award, 1964; Pulitzer Prize and George Polk Award, both 1986, both for collected newspaper columns; American Society of Newspaper Editors award, 1988, for commentary-column writing.
UNDER NAME JIMMY BRESLIN, EXCEPT WHERE INDICATED
Sunny Jim: The Life of America's Most Beloved Horseman, James Fitzsimmons (nonfiction), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1962.
Can't Anybody Here Play This Game? (nonfiction), edited by Dick Schapp, Viking (New York, NY), 1963, with introduction by Bill Veeck, Ivan R. Dee (Chicago, IL), 2003.
The World of Jimmy Breslin (collected articles), annotated by James G. Bellows and Richard C. Wald, Viking (New York, NY), 1967.
The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1969.
(With Norman Mailer, Peter Maas, Gloria Steinem, and others) Running against the Machine: The Mailer-Breslin Campaign (collected speeches, policy statements, interviews, etc.), edited by Peter Manso, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1970.
World without End, Amen (novel) Viking (New York, NY), 1973.
How the Good Guys Finally Won: Notes from an Impeachment Summer (nonfiction), Viking (New York, NY), 1975.
(With Dick Schaap) .44 (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1978.
Forsaking All Others (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1982.
The World according to Breslin (collected columns), annotated by Michael J. O'Neill and William Brink, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1984.
Collection of Daily News Columns, Viking (New York, NY), 1986.
Table Money (novel), Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1987.
He Got Hungry and Forgot His Manners (novel), Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1987.
Damon Runyon, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1991.
A Slight Case of Amazing Grace: A Memoir, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1996.
I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me: A Memoir, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1996.
I Don't Want to Go to Jail, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2001.
The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez (biography), Crown (New York, NY), 2002.
The Church That Forgot Christ, Free Press (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to numerous newspapers and magazines, including Penthouse, Sports Illustrated, Saturday Evening Post, Time, and New York.
ADAPTATIONS: The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight was adapted into a feature film.
SIDELIGHTS: For more than two decades, James—better known as Jimmy—Breslin has provided the literary voice for a group that for many years had none: that of the Irish-American working class from New York's Queens neighborhoods, where Breslin himself grew up. As novelist and columnist for various New York newspapers, Breslin encompasses the "New Journalism" ideals that originated in the 1970s, wherein the writer, far from distancing himself from his subject, instead becomes passionately and personally involved in the story. And so Breslin wrote about politics by throwing himself into the political arena in 1969 by running—unsuccessfully—for president of the New York City council under mayoral candidate Norman Mailer. Their platform was to make New York City America's fifty-first state. In 1977 Breslin gained celebrity for a less-humorous reason when accused "Son-of-Sam" serial murderer David Berkowitz made the columnist the sole recipient of letters sent periodically while officials were combing the city for the killer.
A former sportswriter, Breslin uses the native poetry of the street to make his points. His columns often defend the ordinary man against the bureaucracies of government and industry. Breslin "seems to play by different rules than most reporters, which is probably why it took the Pulitzer committee so long to honor him," noted Jonathan Alter in a 1986 Newsweek article published just after the Pulitzer prize panel finally awarded the writer. "For years Breslin's fabled ear for dialogue has struck some colleagues as a bit too good, too epigrammatic for the way people really speak between quotation marks," Alter continued. To this charge Breslin responds in the Newsweek piece that other reporters "take a cop on the beat and make him sound like he's the under secretary of state. They're the ones who make up quotes."
The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, the book that marked Breslin's move into fiction, disappointed some critics with what they saw as stereotypical portrayals of comic hoodlums on the make. Thomas Meehan of the New York Times, for example, while noting that the book "may be the best first novel written all year by a defeated candidate for President of the City Council," found that Breslin's humor comes mostly from "mayhem—funny, perhaps, to those capable of getting a laugh out of someone being blown up, garroted, or pitched headfirst off a bridge." Though New York Times Book Review critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt was similarly unimpressed overall with The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, he shared Meehan's view that Breslin does touch the book with sharply satirical jabs at New York City. "Indeed, the best parts of the novel (and Breslin addicts should agree) are such throwaway details [as Breslin provides]," added Meehan, "again, the sort of thing this author does so well in his magazine and newspaper pieces."
Breslin took account of his own background for his next novel, World without End, Amen, the tale of a New York cop of Irish extraction whose racist views and weary existence are challenged when he takes a trip to his mother country and witnesses "The Troubles" ongoing between Catholic and Protestant Irish. "Because [protagonist Dermot Davey's] life is coming apart, the reader might well expect that his visit to the land of his forebears will open up new vistas, not only of social conscience but of meaning, and that the ruined cop will somehow find himself quixotically in the cause of the Irish Republic," wrote Washington Post Book World reviewer Richard Brown. "This is not the author's intent, however, and except for a moving encounter between father and son in a bar in Derry, . . . the found father is of little significance, and the idea of Ireland as homeland is of even less." In the opinion of Commentary critic Dorothy Rabinowitz, "There is no hope for the Dermots and their families, Breslin wishes to teach us—not because they are poor or uncultured or incurious (for so are their kin in Ulster), but because they are political reactionaries. That so much of life's worth should be thought to depend on a certain politics might be thought extraordinary in another time than ours. Yet this is a cornerstone of belief for Breslin, as it is for the sensibility he represents."
Harvey Gardner, writing in the New York Times Book Review, found a split in the quality of World without End, Amen. "In a skillful Breslin style the first third of the book draws the picture of Dermot and the cop world he knows. There is a great deal of grim humor, and where humor fails, one sees a satisfaction in showing succinctly the causes of human inadequacy." However, added Gardner, when the action moves to Northern Ireland, the "New York idiom" Breslin employs "often seems inappropriate. That is something one does not like to say of a writer so much to be valued for his rightness about things on his own turf." A Times Literary Supplement reviewer offered a different point of view, stating: "If the story were merely a moral tale of a victor humanized by being made a victim, it would have little to offer but the pleasure afforded by a just come-uppance. Beyond that, though, World without End, Amen is memorable for being an account of Northern Ireland by a thuggish but not wholly unfeeling character who cannot work out whether he is a foreigner, or a stranger, or both, or neither. It is a confusion probably shared by half the people in Britain."
Breslins' 1987 book, Table Money, drew cheers as an insightful look at the lives of working-class "sandhogs," the men who dig the vast tunnels that bring water to New York City. Breslin traces the generations of one family of sandhogs, the Morrisons, back to the first immigrant from Ireland in the nineteenth century. But by 1970, when the novel takes place, the latest Morrison man, Owney, newly returned from Vietnam with a Medal of Honor, becomes plagued by self-doubt when his wife Dolores decides to better their station in life by attending medical school. George James, writing in the New York Times Book Review, expressed surprise that "the blue-collar bard of the Borough of Queens [would write] a strongly feminist novel," but Breslin's depiction of the strong-willed Dolores, who forges ahead while her husband slips into obscurity, does not surprise her creator. As Breslin told James, Table Money was written during a time in his life when "my wife contracted an illness and I wound up for some time taking care of the house [and six children] and getting closer to a woman than I ever had been before—unfortunately so, in illness. I came out of it with a lot of wreckage in my hands, but I learned from it."
Breslin followed Table Money with another novel, He Got Hungry and Forgot His Manners, which did not receive as much attention, partly because the "deep, bitter, almost Kafkaesque satire," as Lehmann-Haupt called it in a New York Times review, did not appeal to as wide an audience. He Got Hungry and Forgot His Manners is a tall tale involving events surrounding the controversial racial attacks that occurred at Howard Beach, Queens, in 1986. D'Arcy Cosgrove, a priest dispatched by order of the Vatican to the borough in response to the attacks, believes the incident was sexually motivated. Described in the novel as "a man bristling with celibacy," Cosgrove arrives in Queens accompanied by a seven-foot-tall African cannibal whose idiosyncratic eating habits accounts for the novel's title. To Time's R. Z. Sheppard, "Cosgrove and his giant sidekick are farcical figures meant to illustrate the failures of both church and state when dealing with morality and poverty. . . . The kinks in New York's welfare bureaucracy are authentic and darkly humorous, but the black characters are not developed beyond their jive. Father D'Arcy's mission is unfocused, his misadventures are a blur, and his conversion from guardian of orthodoxy to radical activist unbelievable, even for farce." Lehmann-Haupt also found faults in Breslin's style, but added that "it is easiest to get through such [rough] patches by thinking of the novel as a high-speed animated cartoon."
In his 2001 novel, I Don't Want to Go to Jail, Breslin presents a mafia spoof of a mobster and his family and one member, young Fausti, who is trying to stay straight despite a family full of tough guys, including an uncle, Fausti "The Fist" Dellacava, who walks around in a pajamas and robe and megadoses on Thorazine. The novel parallels the decline of the older Fausti and the nephew's trials and tribulations as he tries to establish a life outside of the mob. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that "The lack of narrative structure makes this book a sticky read, but Breslin knows his subject and provides enough entertainment to justify wading through the slow spots." Paul Evans, writing in Book, praised I Don't Want to Go to Jail, commenting, "Speedy, sharp and funny, the book lambastes the goodfellas myth by showing how tawdry a bunch these bad guys are."
The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez, published in 2002, is a biography of a twenty-one-year-old illegal Mexican immigrant who was working in construction in Brooklyn when an accident caused him to drown in a pool of concrete. Writing in the Library Journal, Elaine Machleder noted that "author Breslin . . . gives voice and respect to the powerless like Gutierrez." In the book, Breslin recounts the itinerant worker's life, both in Mexico and America, giving the reader a look at the tough and lonely life shared by many immigrant workers. He also looks into the seamy side of builders, employers, and bureaucrats whose actions, according to the journalist, all contributed to the Guiterrez's death. "For Breslin, Gutierrez's story not only typifies the hardships that Mexican migrants face in coming north but shows how harsh the working conditions are when they arrive," wrote Theodore Hamm in the Nation. Evans, writing in Book, called the book "riveting" and noted that "the author lays bare a political tragedy—here, the heedless U.S. immigration policy and its human cost." In an interview with Edward Nawotka of Publishers Weekly, Breslin commented on what Gutierrez represented to him, noting, "Now we just use cheap labor and people make money on their backs, not caring about them at all. When you bring this up in Washington—immigration—all they ever talk about is shooting them, putting up border controls and fences. Then they come up with schemes: guest workers. You're not going to get bothered by Immigration, but you can't join a union. They're not going to get more money. They're getting nothing! I'm writing about the afflicted."
Breslin continued his look at the powerful and how they abuse the peoples' trust with his next book, The Church That Forgot Christ. Outraged by the sex-abuse scandals that emerged concerning the Catholic Church, Breslin, a life-long Roman Catholic, severed his ties to the church because he could not reconcile his faith with the efforts of the Catholic hierarchy to cover up repeated scandals. When asked why he wrote the book, Breslin told Dermont McEvoy of Publishers Weekly that, after talking to many people within the church, he concluded, "They've done nothing. They don't care about America and that's what it comes down to. They don't care at all." While Breslin condemns the church, he distinguishes between the "Church" and the Catholic religion, viewing the situation through the eyes of victims, perpetrators, and the scores of true believers who, like Breslin, also found themselves struggling with the gap between the ideal and the reality. In addition to pointing out the faults and corruption in the Catholic Church, Breslin also discusses a renewed church that would include such changes as married priests and female priests. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that Breslin not only points out the bad but also shows those in the church who have been truly dedicated to helping their parishioners, noting that "he draws wonderful portraits of dedicated clerics." Writing in Booklist, Margaret Flanagan commented that Breslin's "soul-wrenching denunciation should make American Catholics sit up, take notice, and begin debating."
In his nonwriting life, Breslin has enjoyed a longtime reputation as an iconoclast. Most notably, he has a unique, and personal, style of giving notice to quit: He puts out ads in the New York Times and posts signs on his front lawn. For instance, when in 1986 his television talk show, Jimmy Breslin's People, was juggled around the late-night schedule by its network, ABC, and then unceremoniously deposited in the undesirable time-slot of 1:30 a.m., Breslin paid for a front-page New York Times ad stating, "ABC Television Network, your services, such as they are, will no longer be required as of 12/20/86," which was the end of his thirteen-week contract. The Times ad was a device Breslin had used before, when he informed the New York Post, in 1969, that he intended to give up his column, telling his editor: "Robert J. Allen: You are on your own."
In 1995 the iconoclastic Breslin underwent surgery to remove a brain aneurysm, a life-threatening procedure that inspired his 1996 memoir, I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me. Breslin uses his near-death experience as a point of departure for an unruly meditation on his life and career, from his days as a copyboy to the present. The operation itself is described in explicit detail from both his own and the surgeon's point of view. Most critics believed the brush with mortality brought out the best in Breslin. "With or without his bulging brain vessel, the man knows how to write," said Mary Carroll in Booklist. While conceding that the book is "occasionally disorderly, prideful, and cocky," a critic for Kirkus Reviews found it "always distinctive and often affecting." And Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times thanked Breslin for providing "a dizzying glimpse of great depths, both of his own brain under a microscope and of his gratitude to the medicine that saved his life."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 4, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1975.
Graauer, Neil A., Wits & Sages, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1984.
Art in America, July, 1994.
Book, May, 2001, Paul Evans, review of I Don't Want to Go to Jail, p. 74; March-April, 2002, Paul Evans, review of The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez, p. 74.
Booklist, August, 1996; July 19, 1996, Mary Carroll, review of I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me, p. 1778; July, 2004, Margaret Flanagan, review of The Church That Forgot Christ, p. 1795.
Chronicle of Higher Education, February 2, 1994, p. A6.
Commentary, December, 1975, Dorothy Rabinowitz, review of World without End, Amen.
Commonweal, August 29, 1975.
Detroit News, August 1, 1982.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1996, review of I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me.
Library Journal, January, 2002, Elaine Machleder, review of The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez, p. 132; July, 2004, Anna M. Donnelly, review of The Church That Forgot Christ, p. 86.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 25, 1982; May 18, 1986.
Nation, June 4, 1990; June 3, 2002, Theodore Hamm, review of The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez, p. 33.
New Republic, July 19, 1982; October 21, 1991; January 24, 1994, p. 27.
Newsweek, August 9, 1982; May 12, 1986, Jonathan Alter, "The Two Faces of Breslin," p. 74; May 26, 1986.
New York Times, November 21, 1969, Thomas Meehan, review of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight; May 19, 1975; May 23, 1978; June 16, 1982; October 26, 1984; May 8, 1986; May 5, 1987; January 11, 1988; September 12, 1996, p. B5.
New York Times Book Review, November 30, 1969, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight; August 26, 1973, Harvey Gardner, review of World without End, Amen; May 11, 1975; June 20, 1982; May 18, 1986; July 24, 1994.
People, June 16, 1986; December 15, 1986; October 7, 1991; October 7, 1996.
Publishers Weekly, October 7, 1991; June 24, 1996; February 4, 2002, Edward Nawotka, "PW Talks with Jimmy Breslin," p. 65; April 2, 2002, review of I Don't Want to Go to Jail, p. 37; June 28, 2003, review of The Church That Forgot Christ, p. 46; February 4, 2004, review of The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez, p. 66; June 28, 2004, Dermont McEvoy, "Breslin Takes on the Church," p. 48.
Time, June 12, 1975; June 14, 1982; May 5, 1986; January 4, 1988.
Times Literary Supplement, May 14, 1970; May 3, 1974.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), October 5, 1986.
Variety, October 21, 1991.
Washington Post Book World, August 12, 1973, Richard Brown, review of World without End, Amen; July 4, 1982; June 1, 1986.*
"Breslin, James 1930-." Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 17, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/breslin-james-1930
"Breslin, James 1930-." Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. . Retrieved November 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/breslin-james-1930
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