Boy, it's been a while since we've seen Mr. Ashwood-Smith, and just before Frannie opened this one up, I wondered aloud if we would see him today, after seeing another of our favorites yesterday. True story.
Today's central quadstack pushed this one into an oblong 16x15 grid, and the connections between the segments were tight, so that the flow felt slightly restricted. Or, rather, it felt like three, or maybe even six separate puzzles.
The center fell relatively quickly (after the NE), and I broke into it with the amusing BREAKERONENINER (38A: Words from a good buddy). I always said "Breaker one nine," but I certainly heard "one niner" plenty. I loved NATIONALAVERAGE (37A: Country standard), and can I imagine Mr. Ashwood-Smith himself using ICALLEMASISEEEM (32A: Straight talker's slangy phrase) to answer anyone who GROANSAT the use of "one" in the final 15.
Lots of double Es that look weird. IBEFOREE (1A: Start of a weird infraction) (lovely clue), EENIE (8D: Start of an elimination), BEEBE (2D: Deep-sea explorer William), and SEETO (48D: Mind). Well, ok, that last one doesn't look too, too strange, but if you think of it as one word it does. And as for BEEBE, the cross with ABBA was the last thing in today, and it took one guess at another letter before I went back to my original choice of a B. I talked myself out of it by thinking that they would have just gone with an "ABBA the band," clue if it were really ABBA. Oh well. You win some, you lose some, right Martin?
Lots of good, interesting, and clever things in here. Took us forever to get REBS (23A: Gray figures?), and Frannie put "PhD" in right away for 29A: Only one U.S. prez has had one (MBA), thinking of Wilson, not #43, which slowed us down slightly. On the other hand, she also put in SEALSKIN (16A: Eskimo wear), ARABIC (56A: Whence the word "alcohol"), and ESPRESSO (62A: Tiramisu ingredient) without hesitation, which helped a lot in those areas. The SW was particularly tough, and ARABIC eventually led me to guess EIRE (53D: Country name pronounced by natives in two syllables), which led to TOPTENLIST (49A: High ranking?), and then things finally fell. TAWS (49D: Shooters), was puzzling, but now that I've looked it up, it is familiar. I'm pretty sure Frannie's dad has told us about playing marbles in the past, and he probably used that word.
SENESCENCE (28D: Old age) is a good word, I liked MEANINGLESS (29D: Inane), and the inclusion of the recently deceased JOANRIVERS was a nice nod.
Anywho, we love a good Saturday challenge, and this fit the bill nicely.