Portrait of an (Nonfiction) Artistby Barbara Lounsberry
Gay Talese is known for his daring pursuit of "unreportable" stories, for his exhaustive research, and for his formally elegant style. These qualities, arguably, are the touchstones of the finest literary journalism. Talese is often cited as one of the founders of the 1960s "New Journalism," but he has always politely demurred from this label, insisting that his "stories with real names" represent no reformist crusade, but rather his own highly personal response to the world as an Italian-American "outsider."
Talese was born 7 February 1932 on the small island of Ocean City, New Jersey, a resort town just south of Atlantic City. The lives of his parents, Joseph Talese, a southern Italian tailor who immigrated to America in 1922, and Catherine DePaolo, a buyer for a Brooklyn department store, are chronicled in Unto the Sons (1992), Talese's memoir and history of Italian immigration to America. In "Origins of a Nonfiction Writer," (1996), Talese writes that he comes "from an island and a family that reinforced my identity as a marginal American, an outsider, an alien in my native nation" (1). Talese was a minority within a minority, for he was an Italian-American Catholic in an Irish Catholic parish on a Protestant dominated island. Always a lover of history, he soon learned that his island home had been founded as a religious retreat in 1879 by Methodist ministers who wished "to secure the presence of God on the beach, to shade the summer from the corrupting exposure of the flesh, and to eliminate the temptations of alcohol and other evil spirits they saw swirling around them as freely as the mosquitoes from the nearby marshes" ("Origins" 1). Talese's later exploration of "forbidden" subjects in such works as Honor Thy Father (1971) and Thy Neighbor's Wife (1980) is rooted in his rebellion against his island's prohibitions.
Talese's profound identification with the unnoticed and his celebration of "losers" throughout his writing career stems from his own feelings of failure as a grade school and high school student, as well as from his outsider, minority status. "I was variously looked upon as 'aloof,' 'complicated,' 'vague,' 'smug,' 'quirky,' 'in another world'--or so I was described by former students years later at a class reunion," Talese acknowledges. "They also recalled that during our school days I had somehow seemed to be 'older' than the rest of them, an impression I attribute partly to my being the only student who came to class daily wearing a jacket and tie" ("Origins" 8). Talese remained a walking mannequin, a mobile advertisement of his immigrant father's tailoring artistry, to the end of his college days.
Journalism was to provide escape and the first success for the undervalued but always curious Talese. As often happens with life-changing events, it came in the most off-hand, serendipitous fashion. One afternoon after his sophomore year in high school the assistant coach of his baseball team protested that he was too busy to call in the account of the games to the local newspaper, and the head coach asked Talese to assume this chore. "On the mistaken assumption that relieving the athletic department of its press duties would gain me the gratitude of the coach and get me more playing time, I took the job and even embellished it by using my typing skills to compose my own account of the games rather than merely relaying the information to the newspapers by telephone," Talese wrote in "Origins" (9).
Once started, however, Talese was no ordinary high school reporter. From his first article as a fifteen-year-old in June 1947 till his "Swan Song" column in September l949 as he left the island to attend the University of Alabama, Talese wrote 311 articles and columns for the weekly Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger. After only seven articles, his role as a Sentinel-Ledger sports writer was expanded to that of high school reporter and columnist as well. His "High School Highlights" column, which premiered l7 October l947, enabled Talese to become the Balzac of his own miniature culture. "Although I continued to forgo asking young women to dances, I sometimes did go alone in my new role as a social columnist," he recalls. "For individuals who were as shy and curious as myself, journalism was an ideal preoccupation, a vehicle that transcended the limitations of reticence. It also provided excuses for inquiring into other people's lives, asking them leading questions and expecting reasonable answers" ("Origins" 12).
In "Origins of a Nonfiction Writer," Talese pays tribute to his mother for modeling the listening and interviewing skills he came to practice as a literary journalist. Catherine DePaolo Talese ran the "Talese Townshop," the fashionable women's dress boutique over which the family lived. Talese recalls the shop as: "a kind of talk-show that flowed around the engaging manner and well-timed questions of my mother; and as a boy not much taller than the counters behind which I used to pause and eavesdrop, I learned [from my mother] . . . to listen with patience and care, and never to interrupt even when people were having great difficulty in explaining themselves, for during such halting and imprecise moments . . . people are very revealing--what they hesitate to talk about can tell much about them. Their pauses, their evasions, their sudden shifts in subject matter are likely indicators of what embarrasses them, or irritates them, or what they regard as too private or imprudent to be disclosed to another person at that particular time. However, I have also over-heard many people discussing candidly with my mother what they had earlier avoided--a reaction that I think had less to do with her inquiring nature or sensitively posed questions than with their gradual acceptance of her as a trustworthy individual in whom they could confide."
Perhaps more than any other artist of nonfiction, Talese has made it his credo to return again and again to his subjects. This patient and unfailing solicitude has enabled him to gather and to verify information, to observe change over time, and to know his subjects so well he can describe, not only their actions, but their thoughts and feelings with confidence. Equally important, the trust he has cultivated has permitted him to be the first writer to enter the world of the Mafia and break its "code of silence" and to report on the private sexual lives of Americans--with their permission.
Talese wrote 55 "High School Highlights" columns and general stories during his junior and senior years, and 258 sports stories or columns. During his senior year he became a double columnist for the Sentinel-Ledger when he inaugurated his "Sportopics" column. In his "Origins" essay, he tells the heartening, Dickensian story of his acceptance by the University of Alabama following his rejection by dozens of colleges in New Jersey and surrounding states. He has described his college years as the happiest four years of his life. Once away from the insular confines of home, Talese flourished for the first time as a student. "I chose journalism as my college major because that is what I knew," he recalls, "but I really became a student of history."
Talese would reprise his high school journalism scenario at the University of Alabama--but with an important difference. He wrote only 12 articles for Alabama's student newspaper, The Crimson-White, while establishing himself as a student during his freshman and sophomore years, but these were enough to win him the position of Crimson-White Sports Editor for his junior and senior years. In this role, he immediately transformed his high school "Sportopics" column into a more experimental and literary column titled "Sports Gay-zing," a conscious play on his own name and unconscious confession of his voyeur role. Tom Wolfe has written that he learned to write scenes from Talese's 1962 Esquire article "Joe Louis: The King as a Middle-aged Man" ("The New Journalism" 10-11), but Talese's signature subject matter and stylistic experimentations began much earlier--indeed, during his college days from l950 to l953. This is important, for Talese was trying out his scenes before Lillian Ross's "Picture" (1952) and Truman Capote's "The Muses are Heard" (1956).
Talese read Irwin Shaw's 1951 novel The Troubled Air on the train carrying him to Alabama to start his junior year. The major difference between his high school and college reporting is that in college, Talese's journalism began to become literary. The short stories and novels of Shaw, Carson McCullers, John O'Hara, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald provided the models for what Talese would seek to do in nonfiction. He noticed that while journalism forever focused on "winners"--the highest scorer, the big men and women on campus, the achievers--fiction writers were writing about ordinary people and their lives, subject matter highly congenial to Talese. His genius was to believe that he could do in nonfiction what Shaw and company were doing in fiction, that he could write "stories with real names." As he writes in his "Origins" essay, he wanted to write about "the overlooked non-newsworthy population that is everywhere, but rarely taken into account by journalists and other chroniclers of reality". This focus, of course, would often place him at odds with traditional news editors, and he began to see his career as an effort to slip his kind of writing into the newspaper.
Talese was a nineteen-year-old college sophomore when he attempted his breakthrough first scene in a feature story. Like much modernist fiction, it seemed to begin "in medias res": "The smiling French professor, with a dapper tweed sports jacket, stylish pair of basket-weave shoes, and windsor-knotted tie, asked the question again" (Crimson-White 7 March 195l). Fully 13 of Talese's 71 college columns and articles employ scenes or mini-scenes. He often tried to evoke the atmosphere of athletes away from the glory of the playing field, as in this 7 November 1951 "Sports Gay-zing" item titled "Sunday Morning bull session":
This could be fiction, only the actions and people were real. In his senior year, Talese would join scene with philosophical musing in an early exploration of one of his greatest subjects: Fame and Obscurity (1970). As he would tell Playboy magazine decades later: "I'm not at all concerned with the mythology of fame and success but with the real "soul" of success and the bitterness of attaining [it] and the heartbreak of not attaining it" :
Resisting the hero-worshipping stance of sportswriters like Grantland Rice, Talese began to turn his "Sports Gay-z" toward "losers" and the unnoticed. He wrote of 7-foot Eugene Jackson, an Alabama student who was not a basketball star (17 March 1953), and about old "Hooch" Collins, the African American lockerroom attendant on Alabama's then all-white campus. "It was considered good luck to touch this man's head. There was this touching between these Southerners," Talese recalls. "There he was picking up the towels, cleaning out the showers, and getting his head touched by all those hopeful athletes before a game of football against Georgia Tech or Tennessee, but for me he was a character on this white campus in this city called Tuscaloosa which was the home of the Klan."
Talese headed for New York City when he graduated from college in June l953, but the only newspaper job he could find was as a nonwriting copyboy for The New York Times. This didn't faze him. His impeccable store manners and handstitched Italian suits impressed first the woman in personnel who hired him and then several editors who were inclined to use the stories the dapper copyboy began politely to feed them. Talese's later bestselling volumes are all foreshadowed in his earlier work; indeed his unsigned first Times article prefigures uncannily his first bestseller, The Kingdom and the Power (1969), the behind-the-scenes look at The New York Times. Preferring as he does the unnoticed story to the "big story," Talese is particularly drawn to the kind of story that is present, yet ignored by everyone because they are following "the big story." In November l953, his curiosity led him to climb the stairs to the attic of the Times Square building to interview and write about the man behind the famous five-foot headlines that revolve glitteringly around Times Square. Only Talese thought to look behind the facade ("Times Square Anniversary" 2 November 1953). In similar fashion, in 1954 he intrigued the Times' staid editors with a longer feature article on the Boardwalk chairs of Atlantic City which carried nearly l0,000,000 visitors a year (21 February 1954). Here again was something present yet unremarked upon and thought unremarkable until Talese turned his gaze, his indefatiguable research, and his respectful language upon it.
Talese's college days had unfolded during the Korean conflict; in preparation, all male University of Alabama students trained in the Reserved Officer Training Corps (ROTC). Talese graduated from Alabama as a second lieutenant and sought work in New York knowing the Army could commission him at any time. The commission came in 1954, and he was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to train in the Tank Corps. Maladroit mechanically but verbally savvy, he managed to get himself transferred to the Office of Public Information where he quickly reinstituted a column titled "Fort Knox Confidential" in the local newspaper, Inside the Turret. Talese had quoted Red Smith in his college "Sports Gay-zing" columns and written parodies of Shakespeare and Edgar Guest. He continued his literary exercises in his Fort Knox Confidential columns, beginning with a scene of a blonde in the PX among comic book reading GI's (20 May 1955), and progressing to an account of a parachutist's miracle survival written in the style of Jimmy Cannon ("You're Stanley Melczak and you do everything the hard way"; 10 June 1955). The climax of these literary exercises was a tour de force telling of one story in five different styles, including Hemingway's (24 June 1955).
Talese kept in touch with The Times during his military service, even forwarding a characteristic behind-the-scenes story of William Faulkner in the press box during the 1955 Kentucky Derby. When his tour of duty ended in mid-1956, The Times invited him to return, not as a copyboy, but as a reporter assigned to bring style to the Times' sports pages. Those who know Talese only through his later bestselling volumes on The New York Times, mafia families, sex and censorship in America, and Italian immigration are invariably surprised to learn that he spent nine of his first eleven years (l947-l958) writing primarily on sports. Talese himself insists he was never interested in sports per se, just as he was never interested in traditional journalism. Talese cared passionately about human character. Journalism and sports merely provided the vehicles for its exploration. Fortunately he found sports to be the ideal place for the "behaviorist." "Sports is about people who lose and lose and lose," he mused in the late 1980s. "They lose games; then they lose their jobs. It can be very intriguing."
Of all the sports, boxing proved most suited to Talese's human and literary studies. It was an individual sport culminating in dramatic, potentially life threatening, scenes. Prize fighters also tended to be minorities, outsiders often derided by society--as was boxing itself. Boxers, nevertheless, were striving for the prize. Talese could show their humanity in scenes such as this one which would strike most readers as the opening of a novel or short story rather than the lead of a "New York Times" sports article:
Through boxing, Talese was able to introduce scenes and dialogue to a journalistic establishment wedded to fact plus substantiating quotation. Even dialogue designed to reveal mood (rather than information) might pass:
Talese experimented with a diary structure within one Times' boxing story (l6 October 1959), and with Joycean stream-of-consciousness in an article on bare-knuckle fighter Billy Ray:
Ray's musings continue for two more long paragraphs. That Talese was systematically applying the techniques of fiction to nonfictional subject matter in these l950s Times sports stories is an understatement.
Talese further expanded traditional journalistic practice in his efforts always to delay a story's "news peg," the factor which made the story "news," until as late in a story as he could manage. This, of course, was the reverse of standard journalistic teaching which called for the peg to be as near to the beginning as possible. Talese was happiest when he found a way to dispense with the news peg altogether. He did this, just as he eased names to the background in defiance of the venerable journalism maxim "names sell newspapers" because he sought to make his stories universal rather than specific. Talese had no wish to be timely; he was writing for eternity. His "Portrait of a Young Prize Fighter" (12 October 1958) represented a special triumph over newspaper convention, for he managed to withhold Jose Torres' name until his story's twenty-first and final paragraph.
It is rare for a journalist to write more than one feature story on a given celebrity; three or four stories over a span of years might seem excessive to some. In l957, Talese wrote the first of 38 separate articles on boxing's heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. Talese is often cited for his impressive use of interior monologue. He insists that his frequent return to his subjects makes this feat possible. By the time Talese penned his celebrated Esquire article "The Loser," with its two extended monologues (March 1964), he had lived with Patterson at his training camp and had jogged beside him during roadwork. "I had become almost an interior figure in his life," Talese recalls. "I was his second skin."
Talese did well as a Times sports writer. He did so well, in fact, that in 1958 the Times gave him the plum baseball spring training road assignment and allowed him to write three substitute "About New York" columns for the vacationing Meyer Berger. By 1959, the editors thought he was doing so well that, as a reward, they transferred him from sports to politics. He was dispatched to Albany to cover Governor Nelson Rockefeller and the New York General Assembly, a move which nearly proved fatal to his career. "I found for the first time that I had no freedom as a writer," he recalls. "The editors had different standards for athletes than for political, military, or business leaders. Sports figures are not considered serious. They are the only people not accorded 'Mr.' on second reference in The Times. If I were covering City Hall and the Mayor picked his nose and drank a lite beer, I could not write this. However, if a boxer picked his nose and drank a lite beer, it could all go in the paper."
The editors in New York began changing Talese's stories. He had always been a painstaking reporter. In the l950s and even today his habit is to keep an article to the last available moment in order to polish and repolish the language. So concerned was Talese about the style and tone of his stories that even before the Albany assignment he would arrange to end his dinner each evening at 10 p.m. so he could pick up the Times when it hit the newstands. If the editors had tampered with his story, he would call them immediately from a phone booth seeking to restore his language for the next edition.
This tactic served him well in New York City. Albany, however, proved a different matter. Talese would file his General Assembly stories by Western Union, but the newspaper would not arrive in Albany until the following morning. "I found that the editors were taking out what was special about the way I saw something," Talese recalled more than a quarter of a century later. "I did not want my name on the stories the editors were changing." Talese's solution was ingenious. The Times had a policy regarding by-lines. A published story had to be at least seven paragraphs long for a reporter to earn a by-line. Talese countered the New York editors' encroachments by becoming the master of the six paragraph story. "If the editors wanted to publish that kind of ordinary, straight, boring political journalism, it was all right with me--as long as my name wasn't on it," Talese recalls. "I would write very tightly and would keep every story to six paragraphs."
This strategy might have gone unnoticed except for the fact that every Times bureau kept a word count. Talese was part of the four-man Albany Bureau and his three colleagues were regularly churning out fifteen or twenty-five paragraph page-one stories. His effort "not" to have a by-line challenged the whole value system of journalism, and within weeks he was summoned back to New York in disgrace. "In my place was sent a man who could do the job and be a credit to his bureau," said Talese. "I was banished to the obituary desk as punishment--to break me. There were major obituaries and minor obituaries. I was sent to write minor obituaries not even seven paragraphs long."
At this nadir of his writing career, Talese began to turn more and more to magazines and to books as offering the necessary freedom for his stories with real names. "I came out of disgrace after about a year," he recalls. "During my year of penance, Lester Markel, The Times'< Sunday editor, took me under his wing and became my savior." In 1959, Markel's Sunday Times was separate from the daily Times presided over by managing editor Turner Catledge. "I always had a lot of ideas of what I wanted to write about," recalls Talese, "and every day I would send memos to the city editor suggesting ideas for stories. If an idea was rejected, I would take it right up to the eighth floor to the Sunday section. I wanted to do a piece on New York's forgotten second Statue of Liberty which stands on top of a warehouse near Lincoln Center. Turner Catledge called the idea an old chestnut. Markel, however, liked the idea and the piece which appeared in the Sunday New York Times Magazine was called "Miss Liberty--Uptown" (2 October 1960).
Talese wrote 12 Times Magazine articles for Lester Markel in 1959 and 1960, including one stressing, perhaps revealingly, a "New Look in Mannequins" (7 February 1960). Another paid homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "Winter Dreams" ("Caddie, a non-Alger Story," 12 June 1960). In 1960, another magazine editor stepped forward to offer Talese even greater freedom as a writer: Harold Hayes of Hemingway's own Esquire magazine. "Once I started writing for Esquire," says Talese, "I knew that was where I belonged." His first Esquire article, "New York/New York" (July 1960) was different from anything he had done before. It was a series of leads drawn from dozens of Times articles he had written on "the unnoticed," but now stitched artfully together:
This widely praised article, reprinted in Reader's Digest ("Offbeat Wonders of New York" October 1960), was the basis for Talese's first book, New York-A Serendipiter's Journey (1961). The title signals Talese's literary intentions. It links him to the eighteenth century English essayist Horace Walpole who coined the term "serendipiter" after reading the Persian fairy tale "The Three Princes of Serendip." According to Talese, the princes "in their travels were constantly finding valuable or agreeable things they did not seek." In New York-A Serendipiter's Journey, Talese is a twentieth-century prince assembling the fortunate discoveries he has made tramping the streets and avenues of the city. Illustrated in its first edition with Marvin Lichtner photographs on almost every other page, the volume is divided into five sections: "New York is a City of Things Unnoticed," "of the Anonymous," "of Characters," "of Odd Occupations," "of the Forgotten."
Critical response to this volume was encouraging. "An altogether astonishing and extremely well-written book," wrote Orville Prescott in a Books of The Times article (26 May 1961). Newsweek followed suit three days later calling the book "a revelation and a pleasure to read" and Talese "one of the more gifted word-harnessers on The New York Times" (29 May 1961.) The New Yorker reviewer saw the volume as revealing a "young reporter's natural passion for the odd fact," and while it found Talese's curiosity "generally conventional," it found his writing full of "a sense of pace, a crispness, and a precision that are anything but common."
Reviewers only differed in their interpretations of the overall tone of the volume. Francis Sugrue, writing in New York Herald Tribune Books, saw Talese's New York as "a rather wonderful world of strange happenings (all true) and stranger people (all real)" (6 August 1961). Leo Lerman went farther in his New York Times Book Review, calling the book "a year-round New York celebration" (23 July 1961). Others, however, saw the book as more sober and moody than celebratory. The perceptive Newsweek reviewer noted that "the colorful is most often melancholy" in New York-A Serendipiter's Journey. Indeed, the reviewer suggested that Talese's "preoccupation with the rootless and the lost has a funereal effect." Only this reviewer noted where Talese chose to end his "Journey": in Potter's Field where twice a week the bodies of l50 or so of the city's terminally unnoticed were lowered into unmarked graves.
Death is the backdrop for The Bridge (1964) as well, Talese's second volume drawn from his work as a Times reporter. On 1 January 1959 he wrote the first of 11 stories on New York bridges which came to focus on the building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge linking Brooklyn to Staten Island ("Bay Ridge Seethes over Bridge"). "If you watch a great construction project, the building of a bridge or a skyscraper, you see this magnificent work being done at high altitudes-and sometimes at great peril," Talese explained in a 1984 interview. "I knew books had been written about bridges, but never about the people who built them, the obscure people we see from a distance only in silhouette." From the shore's edge Talese watched barges carrying loads of steel, and as he watched he wanted to know what it was like to be a bridge builder, "to be up there courting danger while building something that is going to outlive you, as all great bridges outlive the people who create them." Talese returned to the bridge site again and again during 1960. Eventually he decided to spend all his free time in the next three years, not only watching the miraculous work being done with steel and cable, but becoming acquainted with the men who so adroitly performed this remarkable feat.
From early l960 to late l962, Talese practiced what he calls "the fine art of hanging out." "I was so regularly in attendance at the bridge in my off hours and vacations from The Times that I was practically considered one of the staff of U.S. Steel," he recalls. Talese read all the books he could find on bridge building-and on famous bridges and bridge builders. He interviewed O. H. Ammann, the designer of this new Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, then the largest suspension bridge in the world, and he walked across the narrow beams, wobbling in the wind, to feel firsthand the danger. Talese spent so much time with the bridge builders that he was invited to their homes, even to the homes of the Native Americans who would race 100 miles an hour on Friday evenings to reach the Caughnawaga reservation near Montreal.
The Bridge can be read as a bridge builders' manual. At the same time Talese records the recurring injuries and death inherent in the romantic, daring lifestyle of these American macho heroes. The ten chapters comprising this volume offer Talese's first extensive exploration of what will be an obsessive subject for him during his next twenty-eight years: the parental legacy. Whether writing of bridge builders, celebrities, The New York Times, Italian immigration and the Mafia, or sexual pioneers, Talese tends to be drawn toward the parent-child relation. In these works he expands the specific dilemma of how to honor's one's father in a changing age to the larger question of how to honor the national spirit, the American dream of our "forefathers", in a similarly changing and diminished era. Thus the individual psychodramas of Talese's subjects become the national psychodramas of us all.
Bridge builders literally "span" the nation and regard themselves, Talese tells us, as "the last of America's unhenpecked heroes" (3). In The Bridge Talese stresses the difficulty sons experience trying to escape the dangerous family tradition of bridge building. Chapter 6 is titled "Death on the Bridge," and here Gerard McKee, a handsome popular youth from a "boomer" family, falls to his death from the Verrazano span. Gerard has two brothers who are also boomers, and his father-"a man whom Gerard strongly resembled-had been hit by a collapsing crane a few years before, had had his leg permanently twisted, had a steel plate inserted in his head, and was disabled for life" (84). Of all the mourners at Gerard's funeral this father suffers most: "'After what I've been through,' he said, shaking his head with tears in his eyes, 'I should know enough to keep my kids off the bridge'." (92).
But McKee doesn't, and The Bridge ends with another son's death on the next bridge project. Talese's title explicitly links his vision of the nation with Hart Crane's in his famous poem of the same name. Both works proffer the bridge as a symbol of hope for a permanent spanning to some national ideal, and yet both show the negations that in the present somehow keep us from achieving Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" prophecy. Death, failure, or, at best, a short-lived success are the fates of the sons of bridge builders. A further irony of Talese's title is that a bridge is created to take one someplace, yet, as Talese suggests through the boomer song he quotes for the final line of his volume, the bridge builders are "linking everything but their lives."
With only one exception, reviewers were unanimous in their praise of The Bridge. The Library Journal found the work "steeped in man's dreams, glowing with man's humanity" (15 November 1964). It praised Talese's "loving detail and . . . delightful style." Herbert Mitgang called the volume "vibrant" in the New York Times Book Review, noting the drama and romance Talese imparted to the story (17 January 1965). The Booklist praised the black and white Bruce Davidson photographs and delicate Lili Rethi drawings which illustrated Talese's text. The New Yorker also praised these illustrations. It alone, however, faulted Talese's focus. "The author tells something, but not nearly enough, of the problems and triumphs of modern bridge design, scanting the technical side of a great technological achievement in favor of anecdotes about the constuction workers' risks and daring, which are, after all, fairly apparent," the reviewer stated.
Talese's hometown newspaper, the Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger, however, found The Bridge a better book than New York-A Serendipiter's Journey (26 November 1964). The Bridge showed Talese could handle extended narrative-even sequential narration-as well as weave together serendipitous moments. He followed The Bridge with The Overreachers (1965), a collection of twelve articles previously published in Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, and The New York Times Magazine, capped by an evocation of New York through the changing seasons. For this third volume, Talese took his title from Ernest Hemingway who described "overreachers" as those who "take that extra step, climb too high, lean too far, go too fast, get too grabby with the gods." A prophetic piece on George Plimpton and the Paris Review set titled "Looking for Hemingway" was included in the volume as were Talese's now classic portraits of Floyd Patterson ("The Loser"), Joe Louis ("The King as a Middle-Aged Man"), and Joshua Logan ("The Soft Psyche of Joshua Logan").
Once again Talese found his work welcomed and praised. Frank Jones set the tone in his Library Journal review, observing that The Overreachers was "written with a real flair for language and with an urge to be utterly realistic. It displays feeling for the meanings of life, the social and racial tensions that underlie the newsworthy, and the forces 'simmering in the smithy' of the soul" (1 February 1965). Charles Poore praised Talese's research methods, noting that Talese "not only knows the right questions to ask but also the revealing reactions and byplays to observe" (The New York Times 8 April 1965). And in perhaps the first use of the term "the new journalism," Pete Hamill lauded the style and grace of Talese's writing and saw the volume's articles as "examples of how really good the magazine article can be" ("Book Week" l2 June l965).
The positive response to his magazine and book forays helped Talese finally break with The New York Times in mid-1965 and leave newspaper writing forever. Ultimately, the break came over a column. As noted earlier, in 1958 Talese had written substitute "About New York" columns for the Times' Meyer Berger. When Berger died in 1959, Talese was his natural successor, a fact "New York/New York" and New York-A Serendipiter's Journey more than confirmed in 1960 and 1961. The owner of The Times, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, however, was sentimentally attached to Berger. "To Sulzberger, Meyer Berger was Mr. New York Times," Talese recalls. "Sulzberger did not want anybody to take over Berger's column, just as a man whose wife dies doesn't want to get married again. I happened to be there at the wrong time, but I waited." In 1962 A. M. Rosenthal became the Times' new managing editor. "I'd like you to have a column," he told Talese, "but I don't own the candy store."
Tom Wolfe writes of the rivalry among New York feature writers in the early 1960s ("The New Journalism" 5-9). Talese says he does not recall this competition. All he wanted, he says, was a column. After all, a column had been part of his identity from his first days as a high school reporter. A column meant that his kind of writing would regularly appear. In 1963 Dick Schap, then city editor of The New York Herald Tribune, invited Talese to join the Tribune staff. Talese was offered a Monday column, a column in the Tribune's Book Review, and the opportunity to write for the Tribune's New York magazine. A salary increase was also part of the package, but negotiations faltered. Jimmy Breslin, then working with Schap, Tom Wolfe, Charles Portis, and other literary journalists at the Tribune, wrote a column which appeared five days a week. Talese wanted his column to appear more than once a week. "Why can't you let Breslin write three days a week and me two days a week?" he queried Schap. Schap took this proposal to Breslin, but Breslin refused. "If Breslin would have given me two days and restricted himself to three, I would have gone over to the Tribune," Talese acknowledges. Talese went back to Schap and said, "What about letting Breslin write about the west side of New York and me the east side? Put Breslin on one side of the page and me on the other and call it 'East Side/West Side'."
But Breslin refused, and New York City never was framed by their juxtaposed views. Talese stayed at The Times until mid-1965, gaining freedom and good assignments from Abe Rosenthal-but never his own column. By then he was thirty-three. He had tasted complete freedom during the newspaper strike of 1963 and now felt whatever he had done at The Times, he had done before. "I left The New York Times with a tear in my eye," he acknowledges. Talese accepted a one-year $15,000 contract from Esquire to write six articles. Ironically, his first was about The Times, a celebration of "Mr. Bad News," the obscure man who wrote The Times obituaries (Esquire February 1966). Harold Hayes then suggested Talese write on Clifton Daniel, a more prominent Times executive. The tremendous response to this November 1966 Esquire article, "Kingdoms, the Powers, and the Glories of The New York Times" equaled that to Talese's now classic Esquire pieces "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" (April 1966) and "Silent Season of a Hero," the Joe DiMaggio article which begins with a quote from Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea and includes the now famous exchange between DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe: "It was so wonderful, Joe. You never heard such cheering." "Yes I have," he said (July 1966).
When Talese finished the Clifton Daniel article, he said he saw for the first time the potential in The Times material. "I saw that Daniel was connected to other people," he recalled in a 1984 interview. He then decided to do his next Esquire piece on Daniel's friend, Harrison Salisbury. The opening of this May 1967 article, "Public and Private Wars of Harrison E. Salisbury," compresses the whole history of The New York Times into six italicized paragraphs. These articles, of course, were eventually woven into Talese's fourth volume and first bestseller, The Kingdom and the Power (1969), which is often called the first of the "media books."
This volume was Talese's most ambitious to that date. "The Bridge was a footbridge compared to The Kingdom and the Power which was a major suspension structure," asserted Talese several decades later. "The organizational problems of that book were enormous. Hanging from that suspension structure are all kinds of self-contained units, yet they all are linked by the wiring and cabling of the structure." The Times building itself becomes a stage for Talese's 20-chapter volume, for he retraces his steps as a copyboy from floor to floor, and section of the newspaper to section commemorating the lives and behind-the-scenes stories of the men and women who produce "all the news that's fit to print." Turner Catledge becomes the centerpiece of Talese's structure. "He was the man who bridged the old New York Times and the modern Times," notes Talese. "I dealt with him in the present and then went back to his Mississippi forbears, one of whom fought in the Civil War. I was then able to describe how The Times covered the Civil War, and from there write a little about the man who founded The Times fourteen years before the Civl War. It is through devices like this that writers can tell the story in a way that seems seamless. I was trying to write a human history of an institution in transition, a story that covered so much in terms of history and embraced the lives of so many personalities, yet seemed seamless-or almost."
For many readers, including myself, The Kingdom and the Power is the most artistically satisfying of Talese's volumes. It offers Talese's most complex vision of America's struggle with its legacy. He gives national dimension to his "institutional history" by subtly interweaving three father figures. Talese defines his central subject as the transmission of The Times' tradition from Adolph Ochs to each generation of his successors. This Times tradition is also depicted (through Talese's religious rhetoric) as a veritable patriarchal religion to Ochs and his fellow Timesmen. Finally, Talese equates The Times' tradition/religion with the secular vision of the U.S. Establishment. To the degree that Talese also continuously undercuts this Establishment, particularly for its indifference to the lower classes, his book arraigns The Times as an example of the American Dream gone wrong, of American idealism gone elitist.
In 1967, the World Publishing Company gave Talese an $11,500 advance to write The Kingdom and the Power. This was more than four times the $2,500 advance he had received for his first volume, New York-A Serendipiter's Journey. Talese chose not to renew his contract with Esquire and proceeded to write the volume despite the fact that both World and Farrar, Straus & Giroux told him no one would want to read about newspaper people. Looking back, Talese recalls his publisher's discouragement when the first review of The Kingdom and the Power appeared. Christopher Lehmen-Haupt, The New York Times' daily book critic, had received an advance copy of the volume.
Disregarding the book's publication date six weeks away, he published an attack on the book in the Times (21 May 1969). "This review trivialized the book and, I thought, pretty much diminished me," recalls Talese. "I thought that would be the end of the book, for nobody would want to read it after reading that review, and there would be no voices countering this critic for six more weeks."
What happened instead was that The Times' action backfired. Its premature attack brought attention to the book, causing Murray Kempton of the New York Post to attack Lehmann-Haupt in a column two days later giving a lively defense of the volume. "I suddenly became the center of a controversy and was interviewed by magazines and invited on radio shows," recalls Talese. "I was given a forum to defend myself against The Times' attack, and the book sold very, very quickly." Most reviews, in fact, were laudatory, and to the surprise of Talese and his publisher, The Kingdom and the Power became a bestseller, staying on the bestseller list for six months. "It was number one in Time magazine and Newsweek," Talese recalls, "but it never got higher than number two on The New York Times."
The success of The Kingdom and the Power spurred a torrent of imitations: Brendan Gill's Here at the New Yorker (1974); Carl Bernstein's and Bob Woodward's All the President's Men (1974); Ellen Frankfort's The Voice: Life at the Village Voice (1975); Robert Metz's The Today Show: An Inside Look at 25 Tulmultuous Years . . . and the Colorful and Controversial People Behind the Scenes (1977); David Halberstam's The Powers That Be (1979), a look at CBS, Time, Inc., The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post; and even Harrison Salisbury's Without Fear or Favor: The New York Times and Its Times (1980). Journalism's inner workings were now understood to be of surpassing public interest.
Talese, however, was on to something new. In fact, throughout the writing of The Kingdom and the Power he had a parallel project in mind. His title, The Kingdom and the Power, with its evocation of the Lord's Prayer (and ironic equation of "Our father, who art in heaven" with the deceased Adolph Ochs), reveals the link in Talese's mind between powerful paternal influences and patriarchal religions. Honor Thy Father, the title of his next volume (1971), makes this point even more explicitly. By now it may be clear that the fate of America's sons is poignantly ambiguous to Talese. Most of his sons are failures in one way or another. Floyd Patterson is a moral success, though a failure in the boxing ring. The Times' Punch Sulzberger seems a moral failure in his filial loyalty and success. With Bill Bonanno, the Mafioso's son in Honor Thy Father, Talese presents a filial loyalty that is ruinous to the son, an American failure story redeemed only by Talese's sense that Bill could not have behaved otherwise.
Talese first saw the young Bonanno in l965 during his last days as a Times reporter. When he saw Bill standing in a federal courthouse corridor with his lawyer, Talese was gazing at his double across the Establishment divide. He did not know at that moment of the remarkable similarities in their histories-that they had been born in the same year of fathers named Joseph with roots in southern Italy; that both he and Bill were eldest sons with younger sisters; that both were outsiders in high school and went to college in the South where they joined R.O.T.C. He did not know then that their family albums would look remarkably similar, but he saw enough to be curious. He saw enough to wait until all the other reporters had given up their attempts to penetrate Bill's silence. Only then did he approach Bonanno's lawyer and say in front of Bonanno, "Some day-not now, not tomorrow-but some day, I would like to know from this young man what it is like to be this young man. Some day."
A Mafia son's story was forbidden in both professional and personal ways for Talese-and therefore, perhaps, especially attractive. Journalistic consensus at that time was that the Mafia's "code of silence" was like the Chinese wall, impenetrable and enduring. In seeking to penetrate this "omerta" Talese was defying his editors' wisdom as well as entering a world his own father wished to deny. Talese has acknowledged that as he was growing up, his immigrant father (a very moralistic, law-abiding man who wished nothing more than to prove himself a good American) was "horrified and embarrassed beyond explanation" by the presence of Italo-Americans in the Mafia and, worse than that, by the publicity given them. "I think it was more out of responding to my father's embarrassment that I went into that world and wanted to find out truly what these men were like," Talese has stated.
For four months following their first encounter, Talese wrote letters and made phone calls and office visits to Bonanno's lawyer, seeking, without success, an interview. Finally, his persistence prevailed. Bill Bonanno met him for dinner at Johnny Johnson's Steak House on Second Avenue in New York. He brought his wife, Rosalie Profaci (daughter of another Mafia chieftain), to a dinner with Talese and his wife, Nan, the following week. In l966, a disheveled Bill Bonanno appeared at Talese's door. He had been fired upon on the streets of Brooklyn and needed Talese to inform the media to assure greater police surveillance. "I called up The Times and leaked the story," Talese recalls, "and after that Bill disappeared to California. Every time I saw Bill, however, I would keep notes of my impressions. Finally, in l969, I received a Christmas card from Bill inviting me out to his house in California. I stayed in his home, rode unarmed with Bill and his bodyguards, and eventually wrote about family life in the Mafia."
Honor Thy Father begins with an "Author's Glossary" identifying Talese's l9-person cast of characters and defining "organized crime," "the Mafia," and "the Commission." The inside front and back pages of the volume's first edition present the Bonanno family tree, while a set of 10 sepia-framed photos of the early Bonnanos gives readers the sense of holding an old family album, while a later series of l2 unframed contemporary photographs hint at the contrasting modern life of Bill and his young family. The 32 chapters comprising Honor Thy Father are divided into four thematic parts: "The Disappearance," "The War," "The Family," and "The Judgment." Talese has called this the easiest of his books to write, for the material contained a ready-made suspenseful storyline. "It is easy to write about action," he asserted in a 1984 interview. "That is why writers of war novels do not have my highest regard. What is difficult is to write about ordinary life as ordinary life is lived."
By beginning his volume with the kidnap and "Disappearance" of Bill's father, the Mafia don Joe Bonanno, Talese knew he could both capture and sustain reader interest in his Mafia family story. "It happened to be true; it actually took Joe Bonanno twenty-two months to reappear," Talese recalls. In Honor Thy Father, the elder Bonanno does not return until the final third of the volume. While readers are wondering where he is and if he will return, Talese is able to introduce his real story: the history of the Mafia in the United States and what he had seen and heard of ordinary Mafia life. "One of my greatest difficulties, was to convey how boring Mafia life is-and it is boring-without boring the reader," Talese stated. "I hope I gave readers a sense of how empty Mafia life is, sitting around watching television during the day because you cannot go anywhere, always driving on certain streets where there is elevation, so you can lose people if you are being followed."
Talese sets the final scene of Honor Thy Father in a federal marshal's office. Young Bonanno sees two signs there, one marked "civil," the other "criminal." Bill's movement, of course, is toward the "criminal" and the volume's last line is "Salvatore [Bill] Bonanno has surrendered," yet Talese's two signs remind us that, taken together, his first two best-sellers represent the "civil" and "criminal" sides of America's filial odyssey. From l965 to l969, all the while Talese was giving primary attention to the success story of Punch Sulzberger and The Kingdom and the Power, he was simultaneously keeping track of the dark side and dark son of the American Establishment, Salvatore Bonanno. The Kingdom and the Power and Honor Thy Father can be read as companion pieces showing the upper and undersides of the American Dream. Talese leaves little doubt that he believes Joseph Bonanno's empire-building is as quintessentially capitalistic as Adolph Ochs's, although the American public fails to make this acknowledgment. And who is to say which is the better son? And which failure is of greater moment?
Honor Thy Father became an immediate bestseller upon its publication in 1971 and was made into a teleplay starring Joseph Bologna (as Bill). Talese dedicated Honor Thy Father to Bill's four young children "in the hope that they will understand their father more, and love him no less . . ." He allocated the substantial income from foreign sales of the volume to trust funds for his own two daughters and for the four Bonanno children. One Bonanno son used his fund to go to medical school and is now a successful physician. In his "Author's Note" which concludes Honor Thy Father, Talese reveals that he saw himself as providing a bridge of communication "within a family . . . long . . . repressed by a tradition of silence" (480). Talese's efforts as father-son interpreter, as generational go-between backfired bitterly, however, when Honor Thy Father first appeared. On reading the volume, Don Joseph stopped speaking to his son for a year-a year that Bill was locked away in prison and, presumably, in need of parental support. Time, however, has softened the paterfamilias. In 1983, Joseph Bonanno published his own autobiography, A Man of Honor, and in 1995, he invited Talese and his son to the elegant black-tie dinner celebrating his 90th birthday.
One of the truisms of literary nonfiction is that it often takes twenty years or more for a book to be read the way the author intends. This may be true also of Thy Neighbor's Wife (1980), Talese's greatest financial success and sole critical failure. In one sense Talese was simply following his insatiable curiosity the evening in 1971 when he investigated a neon sign flashing "Live Nude Models" on the third floor of a building within the shadows of Bloomingdale's. In another sense, something more personal lay behind his exploration of the world of sexual license. Just as the Mafia represented a denied and forbidden subject to Talese as a boy, sexuality was, if possible, an even more repressed and whispered reality to the proper immigrant's son. By associating for the next five years with "the obscene people of America," as Talese has wittily characterized his research, he was defying the sexual repressions of his parents, his parish, and his community. That he should suffer mightily for this act of defiance, both in his hometown press and in reviews at large, seems, perhaps, inevitable.
Talese believed the story of changing sexual mores in America was the biggest story of his time, and he has described Thy Neighbor's Wife as a "breakthrough" book for him which includes some of his best writing. The language across the book's twenty-five chapters is exceptional, particularly alliterative passages and delicate descriptions of erotic acts. The volume also represents breakthroughs for Talese in a number of respects. Thy Neighbor's Wife embraces both a larger subject and a greater historical period than either The Kingdom and the Power (which centers on a specific newspaper from its founding in 1851 through 1968) or Honor Thy Father (which focuses on a specific family from approximately 1890 to 1971). Thy Neighbor's Wife treats the vastly wider subject of sex and censorship in America from the Puritans to l980.
As in the fiction of Henry James, settings represent psychological states. The book opens in Chicago, a city which embodies for Talese the religious, political, and sexual rigidity that is the formative experience of so many of the sons in the work. The movement of many of these sons away from Chicago and primarily to Los Angeles and the utopian Sandstone Community suggests a journey from repression to freedom. The fact that Harold Rubin, whose story opens the volume, never escapes Chicago and that the Sandstone "utopia" does not survive, however, suggests the power of formative, restrictive forces. This point is underscored by the book's concluding setting, Ocean City, New Jersey, Talese's personal Chicago. Here, at the volume's end, is an additional artistic breakthrough: Talese's first effort to depict himself as a character in his work.
Perhaps the most important breakthrough in this manifoldly ambitious Thy Neighbor's Wife, however, is the change in the filial stance of the younger generation. Whereas in his previous works Talese had created poignant and ambiguous tragedies of sons failing to live up to the expectations and ideals of their fathers-causing them painful introspection- Thy Neighbor's Wife offers repeated portraits of sons and daughters not seeking to honor their fathers, but to defy them. The book might be subtitled "Cameos of Defiance." At least twenty sons and sixteen daughters are depicted in the volume, and all in the posture of unrepentant rebellion. The important place Thy Neighbor's Wife holds in Talese's canon, therefore, is as the first major work in which sons move from submission to defiance-and even toy with the possibility of domination. Talese, in fact, chooses to end this book with himself, not as a failure, not as a success, but as a son returning home to the insular island of Ocean City, standing naked, defiantly eye to eye with the town fathers. "They were unabashed voyeurs looking at him," runs the final line, "and Talese looked back."
Thy Neighbor's Wife was an extraordinary financial success for Talese, marred only by the intensity of the critical thrashing the book also received. Talese was criticized for failing to include all aspects of sexuality, such as homosexuality, incest, venereal disease and contraception, and for giving women secondary status. Many reviewers were outraged at Talese's opening the doors of sexual privacy, at his hinting at the social benefits of the massage parlor, at his widely publicized participatory research methods-in fact, that he had dared to do what he had dared to do. More to the point, perhaps, were those reviewers noting the "joylessness" in a book that seemed to be about sexual freedom. Knowing the difficulty Talese experiences envisioning success (much less happiness) for his sons, readers should hardly find this surprising. What has not been said about the critical reaction to Thy Neighbor's Wife is that perhaps one reason the response was often so angry is because Thy Neighbor's Wife itself is a book of unrelenting defiance. The volume's tone invites confrontation. Rarely, as in his earlier works, does Talese present the pain and introspection of his aspiring sons (and daughters) that heretofore had created reader sympathy. Instead, the children, and especially Talese, come eye to eye with their fathers. They dare equality, and even supremacy.
The first words of Thy Neighbor's Wife are Talese's opening "Note to the Reader," stressing that "The names of the people in this book are real, and the scenes and events described on the following pages actually happened." Nevertheless, critics have not yet adequately acknowledged the remarkable reporting showcased in the volume. Thy Neighbor's Wife opens with a scene of masturbation depicted in elaborate detail as it actually happened. It presents scenes of marital infidelity, using (with permission) the actual names of the participants. That Talese's method of returning again and again to his sources created the trust that made this detailed reporting possible is perhaps his strongest legacy to other writers. It implies that there may be no subject beyond the bounds of human communication.
Talese was hurt and angered by the reaction to Thy Neighbor's Wife, particularly by a critical editorial in the Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger, and by repercussions felt by his parents, wife, and children. Shown the Ocean City editorial and told of the slighting remarks addressed to his father on the Ocean City golf course, Talese offered to sell his home in Ocean City and spare his family further embarrassment by never returning to the city. Professionally, his response to suggestions that he write a "respectable" book was a wish to do a sequel to Thy Neighbor's Wife instead. This conflict between "respectability" and defiance continues within Talese to this day. In 1982 he turned away from an assured "respectable" fourth bestseller, the story of Lee Iococca and the salvation of the Chrysler Corporation, after four months of living and traveling with Iococca. "Iacocca was an Italo-American success story, but it was not my story," he told an interviewer in l983, perhaps revealing more than he knew. "My father was going to be eighty and he might die without my having told his story."
Thus, once again Talese turned from the "big story" to the unnoticed story, the story of Italian immigration to America, told through his own obscure family. Rather than the small book Talese's friends urged him to write after Thy Neighbor's Wife, Unto the Sons (1992) exceeded that volume in historical and geographical scope. Talese's research included tracing his family name to the fourteenth century and his father's southern Italian village back to the ancient Greeks. He lived in the Calabrian village of Maida, interviewed his surviving relatives through an interpreter, and steeped himself in the history and lore of Italy from St. Francis to Mussolini.
The forty-eight chapters which comprise Unto the Sons move freely back and forth, in Talese's signature seamless fashion, between his boyhood years in Ocean City in the 1930s and early l940s and Maida and Italy across the water. Tension is created from the beginning, for World War II placed Italian immigrants like Talese's father in a position of divided loyalty as their newly embraced nation waged war against Italy. As with Honor Thy Father, such continuing narrative suspense permits Talese to introduce into the volume the history of the current crisis: southern Italy's domination by nation after nation; Garibaldi and Italian independence; the subsequent poverty of the south which led to the flood of Italian immigration to America, including the stonecutter Gaetano Talese, Talese's grandfather and namesake, followed eventually by Talese's father, the tailor Joseph. Talese's recreation of World War I Italian battle campaigns evokes Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms and, in the dramatic final chapters, Allied planes in World War II move in to bomb Maida, a national action which precipitates a final crisis between Joseph and his son.
Unto the Sons became Talese's fourth bestseller. The critical response was, by and large, both respectful and enthusiastic. The Virginia Quarterly Review called Unto the Sons "by far [Talese's] finest work. . . . The whole story is abundant-a kind of masterpiece" (Summer 1992). The Library Journal reviewer sounded a common response in terming Unto the Sons "a grand epic along the lines of Alex Haley's Roots (1 February 1992). The Booklist wrote that Talese's "masterful, completely involving memoir offers both the broad canvas of the immigrant experience and the intimacy of a family history" (1 December 1991). Several reviewers observed that Talese's volume would "resonate for parents and children of every nationality" Publisher's Weekly 1 January 1992).
As with Talese's first volume, New York-A Serendipiter's Journey, however, reviewers emerged with differing senses of the volume's tone. MaClean's called Unto the Sons a "bitter tale" (23 March 1992), while the Library Journal suggested Talese had "penned this odyssey with affection" (1 February 1992). Similarly, several reviewers found Talese's attention to detail excessive, yet the very sections on asbestos manufacturing which were often condemned were the favorite of Book-of-the-Month Club Editorial Board member David Willis McCullough (BookNews April 1992). Reviewers also differed in their responses to the mesh of history and memoir. While the majority found the inverweaving "masterful," several preferred the personal to the panoramic.
The tension between personal and national history is just one of several tensions Talese is exploring at this point in his career. Indeed, he appears to be at an artistic crossroads. The immigrant's son who made his career by writing of the ordinary, unnoticed, and forgotten people with whom he profoundly identifies has, by so doing, left their ranks and become a celebrity, a New York literary lion with a den at Elaine's. From this elevated position can he continue to speak compellingly of the unnoticed and the forgotten? As a winner, can he truly speak today for losers?
Another burden is his current literary reputation (nurtured by Honor Thy Father and Thy Neighbor's Wife) as a best-selling writer on sensational, forbidden subjects. Talese's status among editors has risen greatly since the $2,500 advance for New York-A Serendipiter's Journey. In 1991, the prestigious publishing house of Knopf contracted to pay $2.5 million for Unto the Sons and Talese's next two books.
Talese's movement as a writer, however, seems to be toward continued exploration of the personal rather than the sensational. He wishes to carry forward his memoirs from World War II to the present, but wonders if he can find a national resonance in this personal odyssey-as he did in his other books. And can such personal subject matter attract the mass audience his publisher undoubtedly desires?
Fortunately, some things are inviolable. Fame and obscurity, and the national and the personal, have been the poles of Talese's odyssey from the 1950s onward. But a third beckoning flag has been the "forbidden." Complicating Talese's current crisis is the temptation he has felt since 1992 to put aside the continuation of Unto the Sons to pursue one more forbidden subject. This would be the defiant sequel to Thy Neighbor's Wife, with all the potential for outraging reviewers once again. The unspoken subject in the 1990s is male impotence; indeed, as the baby boomers enter their fifties, the audience for this forbidden story grows larger and larger. Since 1992 Talese has made significant forays into the world of male impotence-the world of urology, and implants, and John and Lorena Bobbitt. He covered the trials of both Bobbitts and was invited to John Bobbitt's Niagara Falls home.
But the pain of Thy Neighbor's Wife still lingers, causing Talese to hesitate at the door of this forbidden subject. Onlookers, of course, can see his dilemma quite clearly. A book entering the world of male impotence would further Talese's reputation as a best-selling writer on unspoken topics. Its subject matter alone might assure the large audience Talese has come to expect for his books and would justify Knopf's multimillion-dollar investment. This book could also press the frontiers of reporting that Honor Thy Father and Thy Neighbor's Wife began.
Matters of literary technique further complicate the issue. In Unto the Sons Talese pressed the boundaries between fact and fiction farther than he ever dared before. That he is a bit uncomfortable with the liberties he took is evident in his "Author's Note" which concludes the volume:
Critics to date have not been troubled by Talese's changes. Indeed, although noting that "historical-and even journalistic-purists might complain that Talese could not possibly know [some of] the thoughts and conversations he reports" in Unto the Sons, McCullough writes in his BookNews review that "For me, the technique is acceptable simply because it works and works beautifully. Talese has created--or re-created or perhaps, at times, fabricated--a believable and breathing family whose progress, with its triumphs and its heartbreak, is a uniquely American story, at once wonderful and utterly ordinary."
Perhaps this response will fortify Talese to continue pressing the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. Alternatively, he may follow Tom Wolfe and write the sequel to Unto the Sons as fiction. Ultimately, however, decisions regarding form and subject matter will be his alone. While he is pondering the matter, he is biding his time. He has become the champion of cigar smokers for Cigar Aficionado and has penned a new fame and obscurity Esquire article: on the meeting between the aging Fidel Castro and the ailing Mohammed Ali. Whatever direction he next takes, however, his reputation for exhaustive research, for unlocking forbidden subjects, and for respectful celebration of the unnoticed is secure.
|©2007 Gay Talese||Design by Charlevi¢|