Ink-Stained Kvetch: Jimmy Breslin

Photo: Patrick McMullan

As the old columnists die out, Jimmy Breslin (whose style is equal parts Dickens and Yogi Berra) keeps pressing on. His new book, The Good Rat, tells the story of the “Mafia cops” trial from the sort of side view he made famous when he interviewed JFK’s grave-digger in 1963. It focuses on Burt Kaplan, the guy who spilled the beans. Breslin talked to Boris Kachka, with helpful interjections from his wife, former councilwoman Ronnie Eldridge.

So what makes a rat, like the one in the book, a good rat?
A good rat gets his name on the cover of a book. The publisher asked me to do a book on these Mafia cops. But I spoke to them and I became disinterested immediately. Then the door opened in the courtroom and in walked Kaplan. And they say, “Are you in the Mafia?” and he says, “No, I can’t be. I’m Jewish.” The first thing that came to my mind was Dostoyevsky, looking at him.

You lament the death of the Mafia mainly because it deprives you of characters.
Well, who would you rather have? These animals in this book, or these hedge-fund operators? Who contributes the most to the electricity of the day in New York? They ought to let the Mafia shoot the hedge-fund people.

You called the election for Kerry on the last day of your Newsday column in 2004. Who are you calling it for this time?
We’ll see, but I’m voting for Obama. Put the two of them up there and you listen to her. Then listen to him. If you’re sick, you’ll vote for her.

Whom do you blame for all the papers’ declining in circulation?
YouFace, these things, everybody seems to be looking at them. But newspapers are so boring. How can you read a newspaper that starts with a 51-word lead sentence? They’re trying to prove they went to college.

And what do you think of today’s columnists?
Jonathan Alter, he’s a nice fellow. Brooks, worst I ever read in print. And the other guy, Kristol. He should be arrested if caught writing a postcard. Wolfey—Tom Wolfe—called the father [Irving Kristol] Irving Statistics. But that’s when people could turn phrases.

Do you read any blogs?
I’m disinterested. RONNIE ELDRIDGE: [In background] You won’t learn about them! JIMMY BRESLIN: They don’t even go in barrooms. It’s opinions written from the kitchen table!

Is that your wife arguing with you?
Yes. [To Eldridge] He wants to know why you’re interrupting. R.E. : Because I always have to tell you what to do!

Okay, so do you use a computer now?
I had the last typewriter in New York. Now I use a computer, but it’s cost me more time than hangovers. It skips, it misses, it sputters. R.E. : Can I just tell him … J.B. : Why?! He’s trying to write a Q&A now! R.E. : [Wrenching phone away] He doesn’t know anything about the computer, and he won’t learn because he says he’s not a mechanic. So it gets worse every day. Sorry! [Gives phone back.]

But isn’t a computer faster, really?
Yeah, until the fucking thing takes a high dive.

The Good Rat
Ecco, $24.95.

Ink-Stained Kvetch: Jimmy Breslin