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JOURNALISTS ABROAD // Breslin's brain


By Jimmy Breslin

Little Brown, $22.95

Reviewed by Rick Wilbur

Jimmy Breslin's new book, I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me: A Memoir is an absorbing, deeply interior look into Breslin's life and career through the magnifying lens of a life-threatening medical crisis.

Breslin, the Pulitzer prize-winning New York columnist and author, uses a time line from opening diagnosis to surgical recovery as the frame for the book. But, this memoir is as much a Catholic's soul-cleansing confessional and an introspective writer's philosophical treatise on writing, journalism and the life of a public figure as it is a diary of an operation.

Breslin takes the reader patiently through a series of diagnostic tests that culminate in a harrowing surgical procedure meant to isolate and remove an aneurysm in the front of his brain. Adding to the inherent emotional drama is the knowledge that the slightest mishap during surgery might leave Breslin alive but with career-ending brain damage.

To Thank My Brain opens on the morning of the scheduled surgery in Phoenix, where Breslin has traveled to put his life and his art in the hands of the best surgeon in the business _ Dr. Robert Spetzler.

From there, Breslin backtracks to the start of his problem _ the day his left eye started giving him trouble _ and then brings the reader forward to the surgery, all the while weaving in a complex mix of anecdotes and commentary that sympathetically humanizes the author even as he dispassionately discusses the discovery of the aneurysm and his growing understanding of its implications.

It is this adroit weaving in of everything from his torn and painful relationship with his father to his remembrances of an award-winning journalistic career in which he has met and written about everyone from Jack Ruby to Marv Throneberry and Yogi Berra, that makes To Thank My Brain so engaging for the reader.

The book is at once both coldly detailed and warmly human. Each memory, each detail, each admittance, fits snugly into an emerging picture of a man facing death or mental disability and anxious to set the record straight on how it all really was and what it all really meant.

It is these chosen memories from Breslin's life and career that help illuminate the book and enlarge its impact for the reader. When he says, for instance, that "I report on a tragedy by remaining cold and callous and concentrate on making notes of the smallest details," we know that it is exactly this reportorial technique that will stand him in good stead as he follows his own medical crisis from start to finish.

And when, in a remarkably poetic moment, Breslin begins a paragraph with the thought that "The El train the color of rust runs through all my beginnings," the reader can sense the power of that memory. In contrast, that same paragraph ends with this thought: "Early Monday I get a plane to Phoenix (for the surgery) and if I get back, we'll see how much I can think about anything."

That sense of contrast between Breslin's talented, confident past and his darkly threatened future brings a certain tension to the book, though logic dictates early on that things must have gone well with the operation. Still, that tension adds to Breslin's ability to make us care, to bring us so deeply into his personal crisis that we want to know the life history, the loves and lives and deaths and family and friends and enemies _ all of it, the full context _ of the brain that is about to be operated on.

That he survives the surgery, and with his talents intact, comes as no great surprise. But, in the end, the successful conclusion to the surgery is just one small part of what makes this book so engaging. It is the honest introspection of a journalist's life that does the rest.

Rick Wilbur is a University of South Florida journalism professor.