Monday, May 01, 2006
Gay Talese: A Reporter's Reporter
Kurt Andersen reviews "A Writer's Life" by Gay Talese in The New York Times
It's hard to overstate Gay Talese's gold-standard reputation. A few years ago, David Halberstam called him "the most important nonfiction writer of his generation, the person whose work most influenced at least two generations of other reporters."
The bedrock of that reputation consists of several exceptional magazine profiles from the 1960's, in particular "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," published in Esquire in 1966. Helped along by one of the great modern magazine headlines, the piece became a canonical archetype of the so-called New Journalism — nonfiction conceived and written in the manner of fiction, with fully rendered scenes, extended conversations and plainly subjective depictions of mood. In 1969, Talese published "The Kingdom and the Power," an institutional portrait of The New York Times, where he had been a reporter for nine years. That book became a best seller, certifying him as a literary pop star as well as a reporter's reporter. Just two years after the Times book, he published another first-rate best seller, his story of a Mafia family called "Honor Thy Father."
Talese was now a publishing brand (with a brilliant Bible-o-matic titling template) who had earned enough money to buy a town house on East 61st Street and to slow his output way, way down. Since 1972, when he turned 40, he has published two books — "Thy Neighbor's Wife," a panoramic chronicle of post-1960's sexual hedonism, and "Unto the Sons," an exhaustive history of his parents and his Italian roots.
He's now 74, and one's instinct is to let him take his victory lap and applaud respectfully for the good work he has done. "A Writer's Life," I figured, would be a traditional memoir that picked up where "Unto the Sons" left off, in the 1940's, when he was 12. But this book is something else. It's mostly an account of Talese's inability these last 14 years to find a story that he and his editors were excited about. His dead ends and dry holes might have been usefully deconstructed and illuminated with careful, tough-minded, craftsmanlike introspection — something akin to the way, for instance, that Joan Didion created a masterpiece last year out of the death of her husband. But instead he has simply recapitulated and redoubled his botches by aggregating old notes and manuscript pages and interlarding them with bits of autobiography and self-abasement. The whole is less than the sum of its mostly arbitrary parts. It's a saga of serial professional failures that is itself a failure.
The book begins — and ends, more or less — in 1999, with Talese four years late on the autobiography he has contracted to write. This has been his M.O. — he delivered the manuscripts for "Unto the Sons" and "Thy Neighbor's Wife" four or five years late, because he produces prose "with the ease of a patient passing kidney stones." He never explains, however, why he could not bring himself to hunker down and write a more or less straightforward memoir. As close as he comes is a glancing comic aside — "frankness has never been my style." But "Unto the Sons" suggested he is capable of distilling drama and pathos from his own life: in that book's extraordinary final scene, his Italian father, enraged after Allied bombers destroyed an ancient Italian abbey south of Rome, smashes little Gay's balsa-wood models of Army Air Force planes, whereupon the distraught boy runs out onto the street and falls through a bakery's plate-glass window.
Rather than a memoir, though, Talese had decided to write a book "set within the milieu of a restaurant." He had accumulated files of notes since the 70's, although by the summer of 1999 he had written only 54 pages. So instead of working one Saturday afternoon in 1999, he's watching baseball on TV — and happens to change channels to the final game of the Women's World Cup soccer championship, the United States versus China. This prompts many pages of weirdly generic text about modern China, of which this is a typical passage: "Brand-name merchandise from the West had been distributed and also made in China for many years, encouraged by the trade policies of Deng Xiaoping, who became the Party ruler in 1978 (two years after Mao's death) and proclaimed, 'To get rich is glorious.' But now in 1999, as this nation of 1.3 billion people was about to mark a half-century of Communist rule that had been inaugurated by Mao's triumphant entrance into Tiananmen Square in October of 1949, China was hardly rich."
We know all this, of course, so why do we need to read it again? It is setup. It is drumbeat. Because the quietly desperate Talese is deciding he has stumbled onto his next Big Story. A Chinese player named Liu Ying misses a penalty kick, which gives the game to the Americans. "Never in the history of China," he writes breathlessly, "had a single person so suddenly been embarrassed in front of so many people." And shortly thereafter, at the end of a 40th anniversary Mediterranean cruise with his wife, instead of returning home to New York he flies east to China — a change of plans his wife learns about from a phone message he leaves with a clerk at her hotel.
He doesn't return to that bizarre, cliffhanging moment for more than 300 pages, and when he does arrive in Beijing the anticlimax is monumental. He gets almost nothing out of his chats with Liu Ying. And her mother tells Talese that his animating premise — the presumed national swell of embarrassment and blame after Liu lost the game — was a figment of his imagination, that a day or two after the missed kick people stopped caring, and the Chinese president told her: "Don't worry. . . . You will have another opportunity." But even then, Talese won't give up, and follows the team around the world for another year, as if his sheer tenacity might transform a non-story into a story.
Between those curious Chinese bookends the book is more hodgepodge than collage. Dozens of pages about an old building on East 63rd Street ("the Willy Loman of buildings in New York") that housed a series of failed restaurants. A half-dozen pages about the closeted gay manager of an Upper East Side club who died of AIDS, a dozen pages on the former headwaiter at Elaine's who quit to start his own restaurants. In the course of a dozen more on his years at The Times, a whole page about an affair between a nameless Times reporter and a New Yorker writer. And many flabby dozens concerning Alabama — not just his years at the state university and his weeks covering the 1965 civil rights march for The Times, but stray details like the number of Selma middle-school students in 1987. And nearly 80 pages on the John Bobbitt penis-chopping case.
Most of the interesting fragments of memoir concern his unhappy childhood in New Jersey. Contrary to Italian-American stereotype, he remembers no jolly home-cooked meals. He and his sister "grew up thinking we were in the way of our parents' relationship." He did poorly in school, and was rejected by every one of the 20-odd Northeastern colleges to which he applied.
But his personal life as an adult remains largely blank. A brief account of eloping in Rome is charming — but then he retreats, archly, declaring almost everything else about his family off the record. Although Nan Talese is an important book editor as well as his wife of 47 years, we learn almost nothing about her. Her professional accomplishments are glossed over in two cursory paragraphs. He is so reluctant to tell his own story that he reprints 800 words from a Vanity Fair profile of himself. Friends and children scarcely appear in "A Writer's Life."
It's one thing to rummage through the files and cut and paste together enough material to fulfill a very old book contract. Talese has hustled enough over the years to be permitted a punt. But a great deal of the prose in "A Writer's Life" is shockingly, inexcusably bad.
Some is ungrammatical, some is clumsy (Tina Brown "was particularly compelling and seductive when dealing with men of means or other assets who were close to the age of her father"), and much is simply imprecise and amateurish — like his 1965 Selma memory of "wooden clubs and rifle butts pounding with muted audibility the demonstrators' clothes-covered flesh," and his conviction that in the newsrooms of his youth, unlike today, "Journalism was . . . performed with resonance and impartible vivacity."
He's naturally old-school — always wears a suit and tie, writes longhand, flies on "a jet airplane," takes a "motor ride," calls blue jeans "dungarees" and China "the mainland." Fine. But most of the bad writing seems faux-old-fashioned in a stilted, wordy, strenuously highfalutin way — Restoration Hardware prose. "We journalists, in my view, were the pre-eminent chroniclers of contemporary happenings," he writes, and "I still respond inharmoniously to home cooking." About nepotism, he writes of employees "on the Times payroll in part (if not entirely) because of their cosanguinity or their conjugal affiliation with the Ochs patrilineage."
When single sentences run on for half a page, they read like a pastiche of Henry James and Vanity Fair magazine's fictional hack journalist Ed Coaster. And Talese is full of staggeringly obvious insights about restaurants. They are "rooms of recognition, salutation and reassurance" where "there is no greater aide-mémoire than a $20 bill" for a maître d', whose "midday kisses" with "the ladies who lunch are quintessential manifestations of unfelt affection."
Humor is not Talese's strong suit. He is under the impression that alliteration equals comedy — thus we hear about the restaurateur Elaine Kaufman as a "doyenne of dyspepsia" and Times copy editors as "desk-bound deprecators." Concerning sex his take is Hefneresque — a pseudo-sophisticated, circa-1955-bachelor-pad smirk. Tina Brown reminds him of his high school English teacher, "a comely, decorous and demanding taskmistress who was often at the center of my teenage erotic fantasies." "The penises of married men were treated far better, I believed, during the era of my early adulthood in mid-20th-century America" because of "the almost effortless accessibility and the abundance of what the marriage manuals then preferred to call 'coitus,' and which under normal circumstances was readily and conveniently available within one's own home and usually within an arm's reach at most hours of the day and night." He regrets that because the television cameras covering the women's World Cup "were not catering to the sexual concentrations that might enliven my afternoon," he spotted no "large-breasted women" on either team.
Even more surprising, given that Talese was the New Journalist celebrated for deep reporting rather than virtuosic writing, is the paucity of well-observed moments. At the Upper East Side restaurant Elio's, for instance, he sees fit to note that one night he sat "near a large table where the talk is all about book publishing and real estate prices in the Hamptons." Wow! Really? In Beijing, he decides his interpreter is lousy, but keeps the examples of poor translations to himself. Talese spent five months in China, but there's scant evidence here of what he saw or heard or smelled or felt.
The thing is, he wears his self-doubt on his sleeve throughout this book — announcing his uncertainties and flounderings but never really making any sense of them. He refers to his "ridiculous life as a prolific author of unfinished manuscripts." He thinks of writing a short, lighthearted book to be called "Profiles in Discouragement."
In 1993, with "nothing that I could rightly point to as a book in progress" and in a "state of indecision and discontent," Talese is invited by Tina Brown to join The New Yorker "as the 'writer at large,' which was the title she had bestowed upon Norman Mailer when he had worked with her at Vanity Fair." "I hesitated . . . thinking that it was not a good idea at the age of 61 to do what I might have already done better when 30 years younger." But he agrees, plunging into the Bobbitt story. "I had often wanted to write more about the penis since completing 'Thy Neighbor's Wife,' " he explains, apparently in all seriousness. However, Tina doesn't like the resulting 10,000-word article; he begs for another chance, and offers to make it much shorter; finally she kills it — and the excruciating correspondence between Talese and his comely, demanding editorial taskmistress is reprinted in full. In 1997, after he sends an outline of his proposed restaurant book to his editor at Knopf, the response is blunt and chilling. "I'm sure it would be an interesting book," the editor responds to the most important nonfiction writer of his generation. "But I don't see it selling very many copies. I don't know what else to say. At your level we need a book with very large sales potential. I don't think this is it."
Even as he throws himself into the Liu Ying story two years later, Talese worries that it's just an elaborate act of procrastination. He calls his proposal that Time Inc. send him to China "utterly stupid," and instantly regrets his "false modesty" and the "obviousness of my opportunism." His acquaintance Norman Pearlstine, Time Inc.'s editor in chief (56 at the time but described by Talese as being "maybe 50"), has an underling call back to tell him no thanks.
Near the end of the book, as he's leafing once more through his "hundreds of pages of typed notes," he discovers "a kind of diary" of his "doubts, vacillations and rationalizations about the work I was trying to do." In one such memo-to-self, he had asked, "Why am I not writing this book faster?" And he had answered, using the second person: "You're demonstrating concern for readers in not burdening them with bad writing. . . . There's so much bad writing out there, why add to it?" Yes? "The bookshelves of America are lined with the second-rate work of first-rate writers." Yes?
In other words, he seems about to see the awful truth, but then he can't, or won't, and says instead that reading his indulgent, hortatory answer to himself "made me feel better."
Gay Talese reminds me of another cultural star of his generation who spends way too much time in the cozy bubble of the Upper East Side, walking the same streets, talking to the same people at the same places night after night. Like Talese, Woody Allen did his career-making work in the 1960's and 70's, maintained a high standard in the 80's — but then seemed to lose his touch. Allen recovered his mojo last year with "Match Point" — a film unlike any he'd made before, set and shot thousands of miles away from his standard Manhattan mise-en-scène. So one sympathizes with Talese's rash expedition to China. For him, alas, the gambit didn't pan out.
Better luck next time. "A Writer's Life" is only a failed book, not a failed life. One hopes that Talese has purged himself, and can start anew, with a fresh story he's passionate about telling honestly and clearly. And maybe stew a little less, and write a little faster.
Read Gay Talese's fabulous article "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" here