New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani’s best farewells, from 38 years of terrorizing the book world

Future critic.
Future critic.
Image: AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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A titan of American criticism is stepping down. Michiko Kakutani, chief book critic of the New York Times, announced today that she’s retiring. She leaves behind a 38-year legacy at the Times, one of obsessive reading, deep political engagement, and acerbic writing.

Kakutani also leaves a collection of appraisals and appreciations, literary obituaries she wrote after the deaths of writers like John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Gabriel García Márquez. She occasionally lent her pen beyond fiction, too, to musician Lou Reed and baseball player Mariano Rivera. If one were to give her farewells a theme, it would be: men, lost, in America.

Despite leaving her post, Kakutani will keep writing, she says on Twitter. The reclusive, thesaurus-wielding, Pulitzer-Prize winning intellectual made enemies during her tenure, but her judgements were themselves delightful slivers of prose.

Here are a few of the most deliciously Kakutanic lines from her own goodbyes:

on Norman Mailer

, 2007

If hyperbole and pugilistic provocation became the tools of his trade, then they were also useful instruments for recording the growing pains of a protean nation, confused and conflicted at midcentury.

on David Foster Wallace

, 2008

An ardent magpie, Mr. Wallace tossed together the literary and the colloquial with hyperventilated glee, using an encyclopedia of styles and techniques to try to capture the cacophony of contemporary America. As a result his writing could be both brainy and visceral, fecund with ideas and rich with zeitgeisty buzz.

on Denis Johnson

, 2017

Mr. Johnson’s America, past or present, is uncannily resonant today. It’s a troubled land, staggering from wretched excess and aching losses, a country where dreams have often slipped into out-and-out delusions, and people hunger for deliverance, if only in the person of a half-baked messiah. Reason is in short supply here, and grifters and con men peddling conspiracy thinking and fake news abound. … And yet, and yet, amid the bewilderment and despair, there are lightning flashes of wonder and hope — glimpses of the possibility of redemption.

on JD Salinger

, 2010

Mr. Salinger was able to empathetically limn the nooks and crannies of his youthful narrator’s psyches, while conjuring up a sophisticated, post-F. Scott Fitzgerald, post-World War II Manhattan — a world familiar to his New Yorker readers, bounded by Radio City Music Hall and Bergdorf Goodman and Central Park (where Holden wonders about the ducks on the lagoon and where they go when it freezes over in the winter).

on Saul Bellow

, 2005

These Bellovian men, like their creator, tend to be first-class “noticers” — hungry observers of the world around them. And they tend to be overwhelmed by the sheer muchness of that world, with its dizzying material and sexual temptations; its calamities and con games; its capacity continually to shock, astonish and confound.

on Gabriel García Márquez

, 2014

…Mr. García Márquez mythologized the history of an entire continent, while at the same time creating a Rabelaisian portrait of the human condition as a febrile dream in which love and suffering and redemption endlessly cycle back on themselves on a Möbius strip in time.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Kakutani wrote about musician Lou Reed and baseball player Mariano Rivera after their deaths. Rivera is still alive. His retirement in 2013 was the subject of an essay by Kakutani that year.