, Salem, MA


January 2, 2014

Watson: Jimmy Breslin would have us see freshly


Breslin was born in 1930 into a dirt-poor, deeply troubled Irish Catholic family. They were “winter people,” he says, unable to use warmth or affection in either speech or touch. His parents fought and split up when he was 6. After that, he spoke to his father maybe five times in his life. His mother, who never once kissed him, tried to shoot herself right in front of him.

He attended parochial schools and learned to use writing as a bulwark against all emotional storms. He writes with mixed feelings about Catholicism. A religious man, grateful to God and attempting to steer a good life, he nevertheless calls himself a “Catholic dissenter” who sees clearly some of the absurdities and contradictions inherent in the strictures of any organized religion.

Some of the funniest stories in the book relate to his take on guilt, confession, communion, “sin recidivism” and rationalizing his own rules for being a Catholic. He says, knowingly, there is no such thing as an ex-Catholic.

Breslin is most loyal to what he calls “stone honesty.” And he hates illusions and complacency. When he walks through his city, what he sees are the homeless, the addicts, the corruption (wherever it occurs), murders, crime and injustice. What he sees especially is the permanent fury of some blacks who understand that some white people just want them to go away.

He says, “I always figured that this was the only game: just go to any neighborhood where the poor live and tell the truth about what you see.”

Although he personally was no angel, over the years he strove to rouse action against wrongs. We can be forgiven for trying and making mistakes, he says, but the sins of omission are more harshly judged. It is what we fail to do that destroys us.

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