In The Heart of the World, A.J. Liebling is dead and with him his New York; Nik Cohn, an Englishman, of all things, is the Liebling of a new New York. The town is so much more squalid, violent, and desperate than the one Liebling knew that it’s an astounding achievement that Cohn can make us love its touts, its refuse, and its predators every bit as much as Liebling did.
Ostensibly the record of Cohn’s journey up Broadway, the story ends, in fact, miles before Broadway does, and the trip is only an organizing tool for the author’s vivid encounters. Like Liebling, Cohn specializes in majestic failure. Here is Liquor Jack, former Kentucky seigneur, former thoroughbred of Wall Street, current two-bit stock trader: ”With wattles at droop and eyes like yesterday’s fried eggs, slimy side up, he looked like an elderly coonhound that had lost the scent. Still he had pedigree, panache.”
It takes diligence, imagination, and sometimes courage to find the panache beneath New York’s slime. But Cohn loves the slime, too. The most moving passages of this uniformly splendid book describe Lush Life, a transvestite who lives for romance and ends up a heroin ad-dict, and Times Square, the netherworld where both Lush Life and the author lived. If Times Square is doomed, as it seems to be, this book is a more-than-worthy epitaph. A