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Jimmy Breslin: the same fight, new arenas

By Hilary DeVriesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 14, 1988



Louisville, Ky.

JIMMY BRESLIN is running late. Nine-thirty on a Sunday morning; reporters stacked up like the incoming at LaGuardia, and Mr. Breslin is running late. Mr. Breslin will only be granting 20-minute interviews, the press reps say. Mr. Breslin is very much in demand. Uh, just which Breslin is this? Jimmy Breslin the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, the journalistic thorn in the side of New York City, the mud-slinging kingmaker and -breaker? Or is this Jimmy Breslin the sometime TV personality, the creator-host of his own talk show, ``Jimmy Breslin's People,'' who, in a man-bites-dog move, fired his network, ABC. Or is this Jimmy Breslin the novelist; the fiction writer with six books to his credit, including the fable he just published this year, ``He Got Hungry and Forgot His Manners.''

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No, no, no. Nahhhhhhhhh, if you want Breslin's Queens borough dialect. None of the above.

This is Breslin - the man of a thousand occupations - the playwright. And this is the Louisville Theatre Festival, the country's premier cultural showcase for new plays, where Breslin, nascent dramatist, headlined this year's festivities with his play, ``The Queen of the Leaky Roof Circuit.''

Oh, that Breslin.

As in that short, beefy-as-a-truck wild Irish rose coming through the door, a look of contrition on his little boy mug, who clasps the reporter on the back of her neck, shakes her like a puppy in his hamfisted grip, muttering, ``Jeez, I'm sorry I'm late.''

Hey, that's OK, Mr. Breslin. Can I have my neck back now?

This is, after all, Mr. Hardball. The man who goes mano-a-mano with racism, corruption, xenophobia, Mayor Koch, Rupert Murdoch - all the social injustices as he sees them - three times a week in his New York Daily News column. Champion of the underdog reporter, Breslin is also a here's-one-right-in-the-old-kisser columnist who helped New York's finest crack the Donald Manes corruption scandal, rode former Gov. Hugh Carey out of town on a rail that read ``Society Carey,'' and, in conversation, name-drops Mafia mobsters. This is the man that Geoffrey Stokes, the Village Voice media critic, describes as ``an extremely good reporter and a pretty good writer, but who carries a black cloud the size of Ohio over his head when he broods.'' This is a man who generates controversy.

This is also a man, who for all practical purposes, is basking in his post-Pulitzer period: a beat reporter as upbeat and successful as he's ever been. He's lost weight, curbed his drinking, recently remarried after the death of his wife of 26 years, moved from Queens to Manhattan's Upper West Side, and is rumored to be at work on another book. ``A real saloon rat could not function the way Breslin does,'' says fellow columnist David Nyhan of the Boston Globe. ``He's a highly organized, skinny workaholic disguised in a beer belly.''

Even when he's playing the role of arriviste artist, Breslin talks tough. His play, which debuted last month and which most critics demurely described as ``not up to the Pulitzer Prize winner's usual standards,'' laid bare the facts - as Breslin sees them - of New York's social welfare system. Borrowing from the Eleanor Bumpurs story (an actual welfare eviction case) and to a lesser extent his own novel, ``Queen of the Leaky Roof Circuit'' chronicles a week-in-the-life of one Juliet Queen Booker, a welfare mom about to be bounced from her substandard subsidized housing.