Mon April 17, 2006
A Writer's Life
A Writer's Life, all 430 pages of it, is the story of several false starts, books begun but not finished, from l992 until the present. Talese may have been suffering from an ailment we might call "perfectionist's block."
By Don Noble
In the 1980s, Gay Talese signed a much-discussed, lucrative deal for a three-volume autobiography. After twelve years--?Talese is a thorough, meticulous, slow writer--the first volume, Unto the Sons, was published. This book tells the story of Talese's father, from his childhood in the south of Italy to his emigration to Ocean City, New Jersey, where he was a fine men's tailor and his wife, Gay's mother, ran a dress shop. We then follow Gay Talese through his childhood, WWII, and his early experiences in journalism for his school paper and the local paper.
Unto the Sonswas published fourteen years ago. Volume two was to cover Talese's student days at the University of Alabama, 1949-1953, as a journalism major?perhaps the school's most famous journalism alum ever, then as a lieutenant in an armored division in Germany, then his ten years as a New York Times reporter, especially covering the Selma to Montgomery march, his last major assignment.
Volume two never got written, exactly. A Writer's Life is not that book, exactly. This book, all 430 pages of it, is the story of several false starts, books begun but not finished, from l992 until the present. Talese may have been suffering from an ailment we might call "perfectionist's block."
Talese wrote most of a book about the Bobbitts. Lorena, you will remember, cut off John Wayne Bobbitt's penis, but was acquitted. Talese wrote part of a book about the travails of Liu Ying, a female Chinese soccer player.
Convinced that the restaurant was both the modern melting pot and the ladder upward for the world's immigrants to New York City, Talese set out to do a book first about Elaine's, and then a building on East 63rd Street, but over time eleven different restaurants opened and closed at that address. Each began with wildly expensive remodeling and high hopes, and each closed in a financial bloodbath. One of the many owners is quoted as saying, "the restaurant business is an oxymoron."
For Alabamians, the most interesting sections of A Writer's Life will probably be Talese's years in Tuscaloosa and covering Selma. He came here to school because he couldn't get in anywhere else and his family doctor had influence in the admissions office. He tells a wonderful story of coming from New Jersey on the train, into "foreign territory."
Talese was sports editor for the Crimson White, had a column entitled "Gay-zing," and was a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald but never got to be editor of the CW, having been warned that if he did not withdraw his application in favor of the "Machine" candidate, he would not be allowed to continue as sports editor. The Machine was the Tuscaloosa mafia. He was, as he puts it, "an outsider. A token Italian Yankee."
Perhaps because he had lived in Alabama, and understood it a little, no national reporter gave Selma any gentler treatment than Talese. In his intimate, first-person account, Talese remarks that "police brutality, after all, could be found almost anywhere" and that Selma "in the spring of 1965 was demonized like no other place in America." He reminds readers that on Bloody Sunday, however horrific it was, "no one died."
Talese's career was thriving through the sixties and seventies. His early, in-depth profiles of celebrities such as Joe DiMaggio, Floyd Patterson, and Frank Sinatra are considered the first examples of "The New Journalism." He had bestsellers such as his history of the New York Times, The Kingdom and the Power (1969), his study of the Mafia, Honor Thy Father (1971), and Thy Neighbor's Wife (1980), his study of America's changing sexual mor?s.
And, of course, in A Writer's Life, Talese tells how he writes: in pencil, on lined yellow pads. He bought a computer once, but was dismayed at how quickly it became obsolete. "The new technology" he says, is "close to being a misnomer."
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.