Gay Talese Undone

By David Hayes, The Globe and Mail Book Review, May 6, 2006

A Writer’s Life
By Gay Talese
(Knopf, 2006, 430 pages)

Gay Talese is arguably the greatest non-fiction writer alive, and on the evidence found in his new memoir, A Writer’s Life, also one of the most tortured. Once a newspaper reporter, he chafed at the daily deadlines that left every story unpolished and incomplete, so he embarked on a career as a freelance writer and took a painstakingly long time to do the researching and reporting necessary to produce his bestselling books, on The New York Times (The Kingdom and the Power), the mafia (Honour Thy Father), sex in the 1970s United States (Thy Neighbour’s Wife) and his own family’s immigrant history (Unto the Sons), as well as his magazine work. (Among many celebrated articles, one, Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, published in Esquire in 1966, is widely considered to be the best magazine profile ever written.)

As a long-time admirer of Talese, I’ve read all of his published books and found obscure articles uncollected in the four anthologies of his feature writing (two now out of print), such as a New York Times Magazine story from 1960 on live mannequins in stores on Fifth Avenue, and a 1970 Esquire profile of the blind man who owned the property on which Charles Manson and his family lived before their murderous rampage. So I have been eagerly anticipating A Writer’s Life, which I understood to be the second part of the memoir that began with Unto the Sons.

Talese was 16 at the end of that book, so I assumed this one would take readers through his early career as a student journalist at the University of Alabama, his stint as a reporter at The New York Times from 1956 to 1965, followed by the revolutionary period beginning in the mid-1960s, when he was one of the founders and leading practitioners of the New Journalism, a movement that saw non-fiction writers using the techniques of novelists.
Instead, as Talese told a reporter from Publisher’s Weekly earlier this year, “it’s a book about not writing a book.”

Several books, actually. He started writing, but never completed, the second volume of his memoir, and includes in A Writer’s Life the story of covering for The New York Times the 1965 civil rights march in Selma as well as a return visit in 1990 to cover the silver anniversary of the event. He documents his planned book about a building at 206 East 63rd Street in Manhattan, which he felt was “a monument to American durability and adaptability, having existed from the horse-and-buggy era into the period of motorcars and then into the high-tech time of microchips.”

When that project bogged down, he extensively researched a book about how the restaurant business is a melting pot of immigrant cultures trying to find success in the United States, told through the dozen restaurants that opened and failed on the ground floor of 206 East 63rd. (Somewhere along the way he also started, but never finished, a book about Elaine’s, the restaurant famous for being a literary hangout.) When his publisher told him a restaurant book wouldn’t sell, he wrote an article for The New Yorker on Lorena Bobbitt, who chopped off her husband’s penis with an IKEA knife (“These were no longer boon times for penises,” he noted sadly), which he thought could become part of a book on sex in the United States in the 1990s, with the penis as a central theme.

The article was killed by then-New Yorker editor Tina Brown; Talese includes their exchange of notes about it, ending with Brown’s final rejection: “Dear, dear Gay: . . . I have come to believe that we should really kiss off this penile saga and have you do something more rewarding.” (Reading Talese’s desperate effort to salvage his story, and Brown’s polite but firm brush-off, will make every freelance writer cringe.) Brown suggested he turn it into a short book, but Talese never got around to it.

A Writer’s Life is part autobiography, part memoir and parts of many journalistic projects that ran aground over the past 20 years or so. It’s Talese’s Odyssey, a hypnotically jumbled journey during which the author manages to produce most of the sirens and shoals himself. For a man regarded as a master craftsman, the quintessential pro who, as a young man, typed out a favourite F. Scott Fitzgerald short story to see how it was constructed, Talese proves to be terrifyingly fallible.

He admits to having a “ridiculous life as a prolific author of unfinished manuscripts,” and that he was trying to “extricate myself from the literary logjam that had stagnated my professional life.” Writing, to Talese, “is often like driving a truck at night without the headlights, losing your way along the road, and spending a decade in a ditch,” and is executed “with the ease of a patient passing kidney stones.”

The book is filled with ruminations such as these: “It was also possible that I was subjecting myself unduly to pondering and procrastinating because I tended to see each and every subject from different angles and varying viewpoints . . .” and with the memos Talese writes to berate himself: “Why in the hell do I remain involved in matters of such dubious interest?” And, “Why am I not writing this book faster? Do I have ‘Writer’s Block’?”

There are moments of classic Talesean writing, filled with the kind of detail and understated observations, reminiscent of the short fiction of John O’Hara and Irwin Shaw, which he emulated in his early years. (“He was a slender gentleman of about five-eight, with close-cropped, kinky hair and an angular face with deep-set eyes and a mustache, and while not foppish, he dressed in a way that suggested he was comfortable in front of mirrors.”) Descriptions of his parents and segments of the restaurant and Bobbitt sagas reward, but there is also florid prose that suggests a writer who has, at least temporarily, lost his way. (He describes New York Times copy editors of the 1950s as “desk-bound deprecators and grammatists, these humorless scriveners and censors of our work.”)

And there’s precious little, over 400-plus pages, about Talese’s life, and even less about his wife, the much-admired book editor Nan Talese. He even resorts to a long excerpt from a Vanity Fair profile to describe their relationship rather than tell readers himself, although no one can say he didn’t warn us. Early in the book, he writes: “I had never given much thought to who I was. I had always defined myself through my work, which was always about other people.”

A Writer’s Life begins and ends with the story of Talese’s quixotic pursuit of yet another uncompleted book. One day, in 1999, he was avoiding work by watching the 1999 Women’s World Cup championship on TV. (He has no interest in soccer, but writes: “During my forty-year career as a researching writer, I have invested heavily in the wasting of time.”) He became obsessed with Liu Ying, a young player on China’s national team whose missed penalty kick gave the championship to the United States.

The book, in Talese’s eyes, would be a modern portrait of China and its always strained relationship with the United States, told through the psyche of a loser grappling with failure in her repressive and unforgiving home country. The only catch is that after reading 50 books on China and spending months living there, struggling to do his reporting in a foreign culture, he discovers that Liu Ying is not a forthcoming subject and, in any event, wasn’t pilloried when she returned.

Grappling with failure has, for decades, been one of several recurring themes in Talese’s writing and, it must be said, a theme in his life, judging by this book.