By L.S. Klepp
Updated October 19, 1990 at 04:00 AM EDT

A Neutral Corner

  • Book

”The Swede was in the same place when the punch landed as when it started. He went down like a double portion of Swedish pancakes with lingonberries and sour cream.” Thus the fall of the phlegmatic heavyweight boxing champion Ingemar Johansson as engineered by the lean, revenge-minded ex-champ Floyd Patterson as described by the fat, food-minded middleweight prose champion A.J. Liebling.

Liebling was the gourmet as writer and the writer as gourmet. Which is to say that he liked to eat a lot of good food, liked to write about it, and liked to write about other things in the same style — with gusto seasoned by irony. One of those other things was boxing. Not that he was a sportswriter (baseball bored him, and he doesn’t condescend to mention football). The pieces in this collection, most of which originally appeared in The New Yorker, do not ask you to be a fight fan in full throttle with a wet cigar clenched between your teeth, though it helps if you don’t consider the sport final proof of the innate savagery of the male half of the species.

All that is required for admission is what Liebling himself had: an appreciation of good prose, a sense of humor, and a raffish taste for eloquent riffraff. Although A Neutral Corner frequently supplies a connoisseur’s appreciation of memorable left hooks and poignant combinations, its real subject is the now extinct subculture of small-time fighters, trainers, and managers centered on ”the University of Eighth Avenue,” the long-gone Stillman’s Gym on Manhattan’s West Side. Liebling was drawn to it for the same reason he was drawn to the subculture of Times Square con artists that he described in a 1942 collection, The Telephone Booth Indian, and that produced the florid W.C. Fieldsian philosopher John R. Stingo, his racing-correspondent protagonist in The Honest Rainmaker — it was full of colorful characters who spoke pure street: ”When the kids didn’t have what to eat, they were glad to fight. Now that anyykid can get a job, they got no ambition.”

Liebling leads in these essays with crisp comic jabs and follows with nostalgic feinting. ”One thing about the Sweet Science upon which all initiates are in agreement is that it used to be better.” He backtracks smoothly from the ’50s, when TV boxing was killing off his beloved local clubs, to the Dempsey-Louis days, to the bare-knuckle era, to London of the Regency (1811-1820) — when his master of elegant pugilistic prose, Pierce Egan, flourished, when boxing as the convergence of high life and lowlife flourished, when gambling and overindulgence in food and drink flourished, when he would have liked to have flourished. Boxing gave him an unbroken link with the rakes of yester-year. It was the apostolic succession, the smoke- filled church of this epicurean moralist who loved civilized pleasures and hated respectability. A-

The Most of Liebling
Other books by A. J. Liebling reissued by North Point Press:

Back Where I Came From
Glimpses of lowlife and lower-middle-life in 1930s New York. With a foreword by Philip Hamburger.

Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris
Memorable Parisian dinners and characters between the wars. Introduction by James Salter.

The Honest Rainmaker: The Life and Times of Colonel John R. Stingo
The complete philosophy of the eloquent racing correspondent and charlatan. Fooeword by Garrison Keillor and Mark Singer.

The Telephone Booth Indian
A witty account of Times Square characters who live by their wits. Foreword by Roy Blount Jr.

Episode Recaps

A Neutral Corner