On the craft of D. Keith Mano.
I knew D. Keith Mano long before I met him. My family first subscribed to National Review in 1969. Mano’s regular column, “The Gimlet Eye,” appeared in 1972. His mandate, described by WFB, was “to go about seeking strange and remarkable things.” This he did, for 17 years, writing a thousand words in every issue — two or three columns in a row, punctuated by a book review.
He was, I would argue, the best writer to appear regularly in NR. WFB at his best was unbeatable, but his ubiquity pulled at his batting average. James J. Kilpatrick’s presidential-campaign pieces, beautiful and wise, came and went like comets. Garry Wills and Florence King (this must be the first sentence in history to include them both) shone. But for sustained energy, issue after issue, Mano won the gold.
Journalism tracks change, for every day brings something new. But journalism also relies on the familiarity of repeating frameworks, or features, whether they be columns, cartoons, or centerfolds. Mano thrived on the push/pull of this regimen. I took a bound volume from NR’s library shelf, 1975, and read (reread) every one of his pieces. The book reviews come closest to being dutiful, but even they sparkle. Myron, by Gore Vidal: “Gore Vidal is such a bitch” (Mano liked a strong lede). Humboldt’s Gift, by Saul Bellow, “gets its talkative, awkward form from its genre: It belongs, with Crockett’s or Franklin’s autobiography, to confessional not novelistic literature.” Of The Connoisseur, by Evan S. Connell, Mano asks, Why do we collect? “To share the thing’s strength, its age, its creator’s talents, as cannibals collect brave human hearts?”
Mano could listen. Here is Robert, a 15-year-old street magician. “A blind man approaches,” Mano writes, “and I aim two dimes at his cup. Robert intercepts my throw. ‘He sees better than I do. You can tell when they’re faking, with their pupils all rolled up.’” Here is an executive for public-access television, on those who make use of his service: “One man took a record of Ezio Pinza singing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ and lip-synched himself to it. The whole business is frustrating and silly and sad.”
Occasionally Mano did impressions; his favorite fake voice was a ruder version of himself, talking Queens. Outer-borough Mano buys a card that identifies him as a Talent Scout, and reads the accompanying packet. “‘If you are a red blooded male’ (me for sure) ‘or female and are eager to make money and have fun meeting beautiful women and photographing them . . . even in the Nude.’ That kept coming up. And I liked the way they put a capital N on it, like it was Peoria, or Des Moines, made it seem even Nuder.”
Over and over, he described. A crowd at an Upper West Side synagogue, waiting to hear Abba Eban. “You’ve seen them before: From park benches on a sunlit afternoon they captain those squat, barge-prowed islands in the middle of Broadway.” Bella Abzug, a raucous far-left congresswoman. “Grossness is a tool, used as Belle Barth [a Sixties comedienne] used grossness. To shock. After all, what you can’t cosmetize must be made a virtue.” Mano visits Miami Beach. “Beaches are a savage hoax. . . . Read? Pages snowblind, one might as well read the wattage on a lit bulb. Sleep? The sheets are never changed. Cigarette butts bristle, filter end up. Beaches are sand-filled marble ashtrays from some gigantic hotel lobby.”
Divorce. “Out my way a male black-widow spider has better odds of survival in marriage. I can count eight couples uncoupled or uncoupling in 1974, about a third of our acquaintance. When they visit us by halves, we sterilize the glasses afterward. It’s a virus, I think: Gauze masks are recommended.” Transcendental meditation. “They pass around a pamphlet full of bar graphs, where TM initiates stand out like the World Trade Center next to a Greenwich Village brownstone on scientific skylines.” Marian visions in Bayside. “For more than five years now, two or three times a month, the Virgin Mary has been visiting Mrs. Veronica Lueken. That’s pretty good: I don’t even have friends who visit me that often.”
Republicans in Manhattan. “I thought they got stored away with the Christmas balls: those rapt, secure faces you see fox-trotting to Guy Lombardo on New Year’s Eve. They look most at home in cardboard hats, all webbed up with paper streamers like Laocoön and his immediate family.” Overeaters. “Obesity makes drug addiction look like thumb-sucking. A trifle. You can give up heroin cold, but you can’t give up food. Every third TV commercial is a pusher.” Pre-season football workouts. “This is the awful time, windsprint time. Some scream while they run, getting a jump on their agony. Nostrils shear with inbreath; throat linings come apart.”
Church bingo. “The numbers come, come. Women of seventy shame me. There’s a cortisone in bingo that frees arthritic joints. One old woman who can hardly walk plays five dozen cards at once, broadcasting chips, dabbing with her marker bottle, fast, sure as a Benihana chef.” Pornography. Mano was cast in a 16mm skin flick once. “Then the director put me on a hard-boiled-egg diet to lose ten pounds in ten days. It was only after the 15th hard-boiled egg that morality asserted itself. I quit and had three club sandwiches on the way home.” And finally, in 1975’s 20th-anniversary issue, there was an inserted parody of NR, edited by Mano. One of the bogus letters to the editor scolded “The Gimlet Eye.” “D. Keith Mano’s Gimlet Eye, ‘Chickie on the LIRR,’ was a shameless outrage,” wrote Betty Prole. “The teenagers of Baldwin, L.I., do not — repeat, do not — stand on railroad tracks to see who will ‘chicken out’ first. The sordid fact is that Mr. Mano paid my son, John, and his friend Peter five dollars apiece to stand in front of the 6:15 express from Penn Station.”
Mano ran a family business in Queens, which made expandable cement, but his vocation was art. He went to Columbia and Cambridge, studying with Lionel Trilling and F. R. Leavis (a path also trod by Norman Podhoretz). He wrote a string of novels, culminating in Take Five (1982), a 600-page showpiece. The book had an intimidating reputation. NR gave it to the critic Hugh Kenner to review. Kenner, who read Pound’s Cantos with ease, was late with his copy. What had Mano done? When I took the plunge, years later, I found it, after two gnarly opening pages, to be easy reading, in the best sense: lively, fresh, flowing. The picaresque hero is Simon Lynxx, an indie filmmaker from Queens (almost-Mano again) who is trying to fund a movie about Jesus’ sex life. He encounters a plethora of mishaps and characters (two of them based on real New Yorkers: Andy Warhol and Bishop Paul Moore, a once-prominent liberal Episcopalian). A deeper plot gradually takes over as Lynxx loses his senses one by one, finally left only with grace.
Mano wrote a lighter, late novel, Topless, about an Episcopal priest inheriting a topless bar. He sold it to Hollywood as a one-sentence treatment, with the hook that Tom Cruise play the priest. The movie never got made, but Mano made a nice payday. For the book party he hired a strip club at the foot of the Empire State Building and stood at the door, giving guests dollar bills to tip the dancers. Mano was as interested in sex as Donald Trump is, and far more interesting about it. Late in life, he experienced a shift: He told me he prayed every night for the women who worked in bars and clubs: “They lead a hard life.”
Keith was warm, generous, and funny; his marriage to actress Laurie Kennedy blessed them both. He had a hard life writing, though. Talent often comes accompanied by anxiety, which is why so many writers drink, smoke, or practice magic. Kipling had to have certain knick-knacks on his desk, arranged just so, before he could produce. Keith produced systems that relieved stress by limiting choice. He had a set of rules for writing, which he never fully explained to me; the point was to avoid similar constructions in adjacent sentences. He did explain his rules for reading: He pulled books blindly from a bag. One source for the bag was the Strand, the great used-book store below Union Square. Keith would visit it with a pair of dice; the first throw picked the aisle, the second the shelf, the third the order in from the end of the book he would buy. You must have got some odd ones, I said. An Indian five-year plan from 1959, he answered. You read the whole thing? I asked. There were lots of charts, he said.
Keith, Keith, you could have begun every sentence with “I think that . . .” and they still would have flashed. And I will never have to roll dice to come back to your wonderful words.