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Gorgeously rakish prose from a living master

You've seen the phrase constantly -- "eagerly awaited." If you've ever read a review of anything, you know that critics toss it around the way pizza makers toss around pepperoni. The locution is, if anything, significant understatement about Wilfrid Sheed's "The House That George Built." It isn't just a major book about one of the great American subjects -- the inventors of the Great American Songbook, the cornerstone of our great national I-Pod -- it is, far more importantly, a new book by the novelist and critic who may well be the great living master of mid-Atlantic prose. Because of his Catholic publisher father, Wilfrid Sheed's childhood background was almost equal parts English and American, making him equally conversant with both the English and American languages, two startlingly distinct tongues united by a contiguous vocabulary.

No English writer has ever written prose as gorgeously racy, rakish and raffish as Sheed's. Few American writers have the inherent loft and distance and objectivity about American culture that Sheed has.

Who else can, so effortlessly, give you the God's-eye-view in the language of the streets? And yet since 1995's "In Love With Daylight," his harrowing memoir of polio, addiction, depression, and cancer (yes, all of those), we have had nothing major from him.

Now we know why, at least in part. He's been at work on this for more than a decade but also, as he says, his whole life. This is a pairing of writer and subject as they might do it in Elysium.

It is, he freely confesses, completely personal. At one point, he even calls it a "wallow" in his subject. These are, as Frederick Exley might have said, "a fan's notes," which means that it was his own love of subject, not a book contract, that led him to importune his upstairs neighbor, lyricist Yip Harburg, for a sit-down with Harburg's old collaborator Harold Arlen. It was his writer's -- and fan's -- curiosity that pushed him to talk to Richard Rodgers' daughters and the great Margaret Whiting.

It's never going to replace the great books on the subject: Alec Wilder's "American Popular Song," Max Wilk's "They're Playing Our Song" and Benny Green's "Let's Face the Music." But then none of those books will replace this one either.

Musicologists, musicians and historians could have a field day with it, merrily plucking solecisms, misnomers and mistakes from the text with "gotcha" glee (Duke Ellington's father's name was James, not William, as he asserts twice less than a page after getting it right). Is it, for instance, perfectly accurate, to lump all these men from Irving Berlin to his friend Cy Coleman, under his rubric "jazz song?"

But only a great writer who has, himself, battled depression could so knowingly and breezily expound on what seems to have been almost an occupational malady of composers in "the Golden Age of American Popular Music" as the book calls it. Only a writer as acutely attentive to artistic ambition and the Big Hustle of self-promotion in the Big City could GET how Irving Berlin came to be Irving Berlin and George Gershwin came to be George Gershwin.

And only a writer as constitutionally generous and hostile to priggishness could respond so heartily to Gershwin's open-hearted magnanimity (Arthur Schwartz, after the stock market crash, confided to Gershwin that he couldn't afford a new piano. Says Sheed, there was a new one waiting for him when he finally got home).

It's the critic and novelist in him that is so good at seeing what others might miss -- the Peru, Ind. heart of Cole Porter, so easy, otherwise, to caricature as sophistication and brightness incarnate (about Porter's relentless pursuit of a good time, he quotes Jean Stafford from another context "Happy people don't need to have fun.") It's the writer in his own flaws and errancies that finds such sympathy for the self-annihilating alcoholism of Lorenz Hart and Johnny Burke.

Sheed is himself 76 years old. Not only is this his era -- sometimes embarrassingly so with fan excess -- but his irrational fandom put him as often as possible in proximity to first person sources that others with more technical background couldn't approach.

These are not the usual heroes in such tales. Arlen, he tells us, is the "songwriter's songwriter," whom everyone confides to him is their "real favorite." Harry Warren ("I Only Have Eyes for You," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo"), a figure of "majestic anonymity," is the book's dedicatee as "the king of the unknowns."

Here, almost at random is Sheed on Johnny Mercer (whose jazz-influenced records as a singer are being released in a three-disc box by Mosaic): "Hacks walk away untouched when the job is done, but real artists go deeper, leaving behind bits of themselves. You'd swear there was a drop of Mercer's own blood in the gallon the man is bleeding as he sits at the bar, wailing about his code and his baby, although they may not be bleeding over the same thing."

Who else, but Wilfrid Sheed, could write a few sentences later that a train as "the only form of transportation ever devised capable of breaking a man's heart?. . . Trains were worlds unto themselves, everywhere and nowhere, with parlors and pantries, uppers and lowers, chugging along together to a solid beat; they were full of America and its talk, like rolling dictionaries of slang. No wonder Mercer's lyrics traveled so well. They were all written in lingo de club car not to mention mothers whispering to infants and Pullman porters cajoling drunks into upper berths."

Real artists do indeed delve deeper and leave little pieces of themselves. Thank God, then, for this one.

Jeff Simon is the News' arts and books editor.


The House That George Built: With a Little Help From Irving, Cole and a Crew of About Fifty

By Wilfrid Sheed

Random House, 338 pages, $29.95

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