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D.J.R. Bruckner, columnist and critic; at 79

NEW YORK — D.J.R. Bruckner, a retired book and theater critic for The New York Times who was previously a nationally syndicated political columnist for The Los Angeles Times, died Friday in New York. He was 79.

The cause was complications of cancer, his cousin Steve Langan said.

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At The New York Times, where he was on staff from 1981 to 2005, Mr. Bruckner’s official job was as an editor at the Book Review. But his byline appeared hundreds of times, not only on book reviews but on reviews of off-Broadway theater and the occasional film.

A polymath and polyglot (the languages in which he was fluent included Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and those were merely the ancient ones), Mr. Bruckner was known for his stylistic prowess.

It was evident in his first article for The Times, an essay about grand-scale publishing projects, which appeared in the Book Review in 1981. In it, he described a series of ecclesiastical volumes issued over the course of a century by a Benedictine abbey in France, “in ivory vellum covers, like a long procession of robed abbots.”

Mr. Bruckner could consign a subject to eternal damnation with a single image. Reviewing an Arnold Schwarzenegger film in 1985, he wrote, “Mr. Schwarzenegger first appears in ‘Commando’ in parts — one huge bicep and then another.”

He could praise with the lavish economy of a single word. Reviewing a 1995 production of Edward Albee’s play “Seascape,” which requires actors to impersonate lizards, Mr. Bruckner lauded their “lizardry.”

Donald Jerome Raphael Bruckner was born in Omaha. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and English from Creighton University and, as a Rhodes scholar, a master’s in classics and English at Oxford.

Mr. Bruckner was a reporter on The Chicago Sun-Times in the early 1960s, covering labor. He joined The Los Angeles Times in the mid-1960s, serving as its Chicago bureau chief before becoming a syndicated columnist for the paper.

In 1972, he lamented what he saw as a hardening despair among young black Americans. “There are issues enough,” he wrote. “What is gone is the popular passion for them. Possibly, hope is gone.”

He went on: “In the light of what government is doing, you might well expect young blacks to lose hope in the power elites, but this is something different — a cold personal indifference, a separation of man from man. What you hear and see is not rage, but injury, a withering of expectations.”

Mr. Bruckner was accorded a spot on President Richard M. Nixon’s enemies list.

The Manhattan resident was author of several books, including “Frederic Goudy” (1990), about the type designer.

He leaves no immediate family members.

One of Mr. Bruckner’s most personal articles was an essay on bibliomania published in the Book Review in 1982.

“Needing to get rid of 600 volumes, I decided to sell duplicates,” he wrote. “Who needs two sets of Goethe in six volumes? But I’d made different notes in each set: no sale.”

He added: “I did cull out duplicates from thousands of pieces of poetry I had bought since the 1950s — broadsides, pamphlets, little books bought for 50 cents or $1 years back. When a dealer named his price, I was stunned: If some had appreciated 300 percent in 15 years, what might they be worth when I am old? But I steeled myself and sold them — and then fell ill for a day.”

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