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BOOK REVIEW: ‘A Writer’s Life’ is Gay Talese’s Quirky, Idiosyncratic, Often Exasperating Memoir

Posted by kinchendavid on July 17, 2006

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Hinton, WV  – You could say a memoir is whatever the author says it is as he or she crafts the form to fit a particular life. Gay Talese, a superstar of the New Journalism movement along with Tom Wolfe and the late Hunter S. Thompson, has done just that with “A Writer’s Life’ (Knopf, 448 pages, $26.00).
I’ve often wondered why the author of such marvelous books as “The Kingdom and the Power” (1969), a look at the New York Times by a reporter who spent a decade there and “Thy Neighbor’s Wife’ (1980), a journey through America’s sexual revolution, has never written fiction.
After reading “A Writer’s Life,” I’m wondering how he ever got anything published! I can empathize with him: Faced with sitting down at the computer and batting out a book review, I often discover that the lawn needs mowing or I could go to my shop and turn out another wooden pen and pencil set on my lathe!
It sure beats writing, which has been famously and ironically described as easy: “All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.” The saying that “everybody wants to be a writer but hardly anyone wants to actually sit down and write” is a truism. Talese admits he takes a long time to deliver a book to a publisher; but the results are usually worth it.
In this non-indexed book (one writer told me he didn’t want an index because they only serve browsers in bookstores and could result in the sale of fewer books), Talese recounts in considerable detail books or long magazine articles that could have resulted – but didn’t – from explorations of the Lorena Bobbitt affair that resulted in an orgy of news writers getting a chance to use the word “penis” almost as much as cable TV lately has shown scantily clad attractive young teachers on home videos – teachers who’ve been accused of seducing impressionable (aren’t they all?) male students.
Talese was born in the seaside community of Ocean City, N.J. in 1932 and is a graduate of the University of Alabama, which he says was the only university that would have him in 1949. Along with Wolfe, Talese was a big influence on me, although I’m only six years younger.
I became engrossed in his history of the New York Times while working at the old Milwaukee Sentinel and read several of his books after that, including the wonderful “Honor Thy Father” (1971), about the Bonanno crime family. It was part of a series of books with titles derived from the Bible and could have served as a template for the ongoing saga of “The Sopranos.”
In fact, in Talese’s newest book, there’s an echo of the tribulations of restaurant owner Artie Bucco in the hit TV series in the author’s recounting of what he calls the “Willy Loman” of New York City buildings, 206 E. 63rd St. in Manhattan. Artie is the owner and chef of the Nuovo Vesuvio Restaurant, and some of his woes are mirrored in the real-life saga of 206 E. 63rd. One restaurant owner told Talese that the two words “restaurant business” constitute an oxymoron.
Willy Loman, of course, is the “salesman” in Arthur Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer-prize winning play “Death of A Salesman.” In my mind, the saga of this one-time piano warehouse and stable – it was built when horsepower meant just that – is the best part of the book and should have been published as a separate volume.
As it is, you’ll have to page through your copy of “A Writer’s Life” to scope out the parts of the memoir devoted to this restaurant graveyard. It seems that just about every restaurant at 206 E. 63rd started out with a bang and ended with a whimper. Almost a dozen have been carved out of the building, which should be an attractive locale, between Second and Third Avenues on the apartment-rich East Side. I’ve been to P.J. Clarke’s on Third Avenue a few blocks south and it’s always packed.
With Talese’s skillful writing and outstanding word pictures of his characters, the saga of the “Willy Loman” building could also have been a novel on the order of books I’ve enjoyed by Steve Lopez, now a columnist at the Los Angeles Times, another one of my stops on the road of journalism. Lopez is an entertaining writer of such books as “Third and Indiana,” The Sunday Macaroni Club,” and “In the Clear,” set in Philadelphia and South Jersey – including a town not unlike Ocean City, NJ.
Talese, as well known for his sartorial splendor as his near contemporary Tom Wolfe, recounts growing up an outsider Italian-American Catholic kid in a mostly Protestant resort town. His father was a master tailor and an immigrant from Italy. From his dad Gay Talese inherited his love of fine clothing.
Talese tells how he became fascinated with journalism while at Alabama in Tuscaloosa, stringing for a paper in nearby Birmingham. His stay in Alabama helped him in his 1965 coverage of the incidents at Selma, AL, which he revisited 30 years later. These are wonderfully chronicled in “A Writer’s Life,” as is Talese’s tendency to come up with story ideas that intrigued him but not an editor or a publisher. All writers experience this, so “A Writer’s Life” will bring many elements of déjà vu all over again to veterans of the writing game.
Writers will appreciate “A Writer’s Life” but so will general readers, especially fans of Talese’s elegant, perceptive style.
Publisher’s web site: http://www.aaknopf.com

(Originally published May 9, 2006)

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