- - Thursday, October 20, 2016



By Gay Talese

Grove Press, $25, 233 pages

This is a weird book about weird people doing weird things, and I wouldn’t have put it down if the house were on fire.

On Jan. 7, 1980, as “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” Gay Talese’s best-seller about the sexual practices of Americans, was about to be published, the author received a letter from a man in Colorado who wrote, “I am the owner of a small motel, 21 units, in the Denver metropolitan area. I have owned this motel for the past fifteen years the reason for purchasing this motel was to satisfy my voyeuristic tendencies and compelling interest in how people conduct their lives, both socially and sexually, and to answer the age-old question ‘of how people conduct themselves in the privacy of their own bedrooms.’”

To facilitate this interest, the letter-writer explained, he had cut holes in the ceilings of several rooms and installed faux heating vents which gave him — from the carpeted catwalk-style observation post he had built — an excellent view of what went on in the room below. And, he boasted to the journalist, when he encountered particularly attractive subjects, he would take hurried notes which he’d later expand into a detailed journey entry. Although the letter-writer would not tell Mr. Talese his name, he offered to share his information with him.

Intrigued, Mr. Talese accepted his correspondent’s offer to fly out to Denver to inspect the motel, the material, and the man. During the visit, the motel owner gave his real name — Gerald Foos — and not only showed his visitor from the East the viewing platforms but also offered him the chance to partake in a voyeuristic sample. Mr. Talese, being Talese, accepted, and the result became one of the few funny scenes in an otherwise much too somber book. Mr. Talese’s necktie came loose and slipped through the slats of the fake vent and was “dangling into the couple’s bedroom within a few yards of the young lady’s head.”

Readers who have seen pictures of Gay Talese know that he is always, to borrow an old expression, “dressed to the nines.” But when he met Mr. Foos the next morning, he was tie-less, and confessed, in the book, “Not wearing a tie is, for me, a major concession because, as the son of a prideful tailor, I have enjoyed dressing up in suits and neckties since grade school, and being without a tie induced symptoms of being shorn of my pretense to elegance.” That (honest) sentence is a good example of the book’s prose style.

Mr. Talese returned to New York City, and Mr. Foos started mailing journal entries to the journalist, who read and then filed them away until such time as the voyeuristic motel owner might consent to the use of his real name. But it wasn’t until the spring of 2013 that Mr. Foos gave Mr. Talese the final go-ahead.

By this point, based on letters and phone calls, the journalist already knew a great deal about the kinky motel owner (that adjective modifies both nouns). For example, he knew that as a boy, after dark Mr. Foos would peek in the window of his voluptuous aunt, who lived next door and had the habit of walking around in her bedroom with her clothes off but her light on. Mr. Foos also told him about his perfect high school girlfriend who, for some reason, didn’t like it when Mr. Foos, as they were necking in his car one night, impulsively took off her shoe and sock so he could see her foot. Refusing to accept his apology, she ripped a chain off her neck, threw his ring in his face, and then limped home.

As the book progresses, one increasingly wonders how much of what Mr. Foos tells him Mr. Talese buys. Finally, he lets the reader know he realizes Mr. Foos is an unreliable narrator, stating, “I cannot vouch for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript,” which is wise because there are many factual inconsistencies. The book’s tone is deadpan serious, the prose almost academic in its objectivity, and, clearly, the author is being ironic at several points. Also he quotes very heavily from the journals, whose cumulative effect is to make the reader feel queasy for reading the soft-pornish entries. A lot less would have been a lot more.

As for Gay Talese, a fine writer who has written several fine books (and the New Journalism Hall of Fame magazine article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”) this one may not rank up there with his best. The main problem with “The Voyeur’s Motel” is the age-old one about trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Mr. Foos may have considered himself a legitimate sex researcher, but the author of “The Voyeur’s Motel” seem undecided, ultimately, as to whether his subject is a find or a fool.

John Greenya is a Washington writer.

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