- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 22, 2006

A WRITER’S LIFE

By Gay Talese

Knopf, $26, 430 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

If any contemporary writer leads an enviable life, it would have to be Gay Talese. For 10 years he was a reporter at the New York Times, covering sports before becoming one of the paper’s first reporters sent to the South in the early days of the civil rights movement. Mr. Talese left the Times in 1965 to write books and magazine articles, and along with contemporaries such as Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion and Norman Mailer, helped forge what came to be know as New Journalism.

Mr. Talese’s 1966 Esquire piece, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” was voted the best article in the magazine’s 70-year history. Indeed, Mr. Wolfe dubbed him the father of New Journalism, but Mr. Talese denied paternity: “I have always kind of thought of myself as rather traditional in my approach and not so ‘new.’”

He’s right. Mr. Talese’s work differs — especially from that of Thompson, Mr. Wolfe and Mr. Mailer — in that he is not flamboyant, rarely inserts himself into a story, is much more a careful, detailed-oriented reporter-observer, and (except for Sinatra and a few select athletes) prefers to write about ordinary people. Nonetheless, there’s no denying that his work broke new ground.

In his first big book, “The Kingdom and the Power” (1959), he turned his observant gaze on his former employer, the New York Times, and when the book became a surprise best-seller, Mr. Talese was on his way. He followed that with “Honor thy Father,” about Bill Bonanno, son of mafia boss Joe Bonanno. The book, which took Mr. Talese six years to research and write, also became a best-seller. So did “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” (1980), his look at sexuality in America based in part on his research of running two massage parlors and living in a California nudist colony.

In 1991 (here’s where we get to the enviable part), Knopf reportedly paid him $7 million dollars for his next three books. The first one, “Unto the Sons” (1992), traces the Talese name all the way back to the 14th century. The second book, “The Bridge,” is a revision of an earlier work about the building of New York’s Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Although it is not entirely clear, “A Writer’s Life” appears to be the final book of the three-book deal.

Because it’s supposed to be Mr. Talese on Mr. Talese, readers should have every reason to expect a fascinating account of a most interesting and accomplished life. Right?

Unfortunately, Mr. Talese fails to deliver. “A Writer’s Life” is, I’m very sorry to say, boring.

In a 2004 interview with David Hirschman, Mr. Talese described his new book as about his effort “to get to people and to write about people and what happens when it doesn’t work out so well. It’s the story about the mind of the writer. It’s my story, which is the story of trying to get access to other people. I’ve had some trouble in the writing of it because I had to answer the question at the beginning ‘What is my story?’ If my story is about writing about other people that I can relate to, then where is the me and where is the them? It’s a bit of an identity crisis.”

It sure is. If you reread that quote, it begins to sound as if Mr. Talese doesn’t really want to write about himself at all, but if that’s the case, then why write a memoir? (Unless, of course, that’s what he’d promised his publisher, who had paid him millions.)

The “other people” Mr. Talese writes about include Liu Ying, the Chinese soccer player whose missed penalty kick enabled the American women to win the 1991 World Cup; the serial proprietors of a long string of failed restaurants at 206 E. 63rd Street, a building Mr. Talese had wanted to write a book about for years; various events in and citizens of Selma, Ala., about which Mr. Talese had reported for the New York Times in 1965 and then again 25 years later; and, believe it or not, John and Lorena Bobbitt, the couple made famous by her, ah, diminishment of her husband’s sexual organ. That’s it, but interspersed here and there are bits of biography that, if he’d had his heart in it, might have made the other rather pedestrian accounts come alive.

Another disappointment is that most of the personal information in “A Writer’s Life” is about Mr. Talese’s lifestyle rather than his life. For example, he and his wife, the almost-equally famous Nan Talese (a publisher with her own imprint at Random House), eat out or order in almost every night; they have a townhouse in the Village and a place at the shore; and he has dozens of friends in the restaurant world. But this book is supposed to be about him. For all Mr. Talese’s vaunted skill at observing people and things, in chapter after chapter, he lets himself slip away. It’s odd, but the accretion-of-detail method he uses so well to flesh out other people doesn’t work equally well when he turns his focus on himself.

He does describe his writing habits, but they don’t seem to have much instructional value beyond the obvious:

“When I am writing, each morning at around eight o’clock, I am at my desk with a tray of muffins and a thermos filled with hot coffee at my side, and I sit working for about four hours and then leave for a quick lunch at a coffee shop, followed perhaps by a set or two of tennis. By 4:00 PM I am back at my desk revising, discarding, or adding to what I had written earlier. At 8:00 P.M. I am contemplating the numbing predinner delight of a dry gin martini.”

Mr. Talese then recounts his experiences as an older (he was born in 1932) writer in a new age of computers, and ends by revealing that all his “serious writing … would be done most likely in my own handwriting, on a yellow-lined pad, with a pencil.”

As I read on (and on and on and on) I kept wondering why Mr. Talese wrote about some of these people at such length, especially the Bobbitts. After delineating John and Lorena in almost stultifying detail, he then tells us that he had written about them for the New Yorker, but that Tina Brown, the editor, had turned down his final product — he even includes her rejection letter. So was this 73-page saga nothing but his failed manuscript?

And, later, he mentions that his editor at Knopf nixed his idea of a book about 206 E. 63rd Street, and also incudes that rejection note. What gives here?

Gay Talese is far too good a writer and journalist to have produced such an underwhelming book. Could it be that beneath all the surface tidbits — the elegant clothes, the TR-3 roadster, the table at Elaine’s, and the hour or two of tennis each afternoon — lies a very private man who has no intention of revealing anything more revealing? If so, then why call it a memoir?

In the Hirschman interview with Mr. Talese mentioned above, the last (and I think brilliant) question the interviewer posed to the author was, “If your new book is about not being able to get the access you need, it’s a book about failure more than success, then[?]” Mr. Talese answered, “The thing is, in some ways, it often works out better than if you’d gotten what you wanted. For instance, in the Sinatra piece, the best thing about it is that I was able to write the thing without having talked to him. If I had gotten that interview, then I was stuck with his version of the events. This is not to say his version would not have been valid, but it would have given the piece a sort of filter.”

That answer provides a lot of food for thought. Does this whole book have “a sort of filter,” and if so is that because Mr. Talese, in writing about himself, wasn’t able to get the access he needed?

John Greenya is a Washington writer.

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