A Writer's Life
By Gay Talese
Knopf, 430 pp., $26
In 1966, when Gay Talese was writing ''Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," Sinatra refused to talk to him. For most writers, this would kill the project. But Talese pieced together a classic profile by immersing himself in the scene surrounding his subject. He spent time with the singer's friends, family, and associates, observed Sinatra at work or in bars or standing in corridors, witnessed outbursts and sudden charm, improvising a portrait of Sinatra without a traditional interview. Talese's flexibility, his capacity to make something vital out of bits and pieces, are signatures of his working methods.
For more than 50 years Talese, 74, has found innovative ways to tell true stories. He began as a New York Times journalist in 1953. Bored with the constraints of traditional news reporting, Talese became a freelance writer in 1965. He was drawn to writing character studies, nonfiction using techniques of fiction: scenes and dialogue, storytelling with the narrative drive and intimacy of fiction. He wrote celebrity profiles for Esquire, typically focused on lives after the limelight vanished, when stars become more human, more real. He also wrote about marginal figures encountered as he wandered the city, about men building the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Then he signed a contract for an institutional history of The New York Times. ''The Kingdom and the Power," published in 1969, became a bestseller, and was followed by three more bestsellers: a portrait of the Bonanno crime family (''Honor Thy Father," 1971), a study of American sexual permissiveness in the days before AIDS (''Thy Neighbor's Wife," 1980), and a saga of Italian-American immigration to America (''Unto the Sons," 1992).
What Talese had not done through his long career was write about himself. One of his first attempts, in the final 20 pages of ''Thy Neighbor's Wife," was downright weird. Referring to himself as ''Talese," he described his visits to massage parlors or nude group encounters as though he were an outside observer. Talese-the-author seemed dissociated, uncomfortable, unable to find himself in the story.
A decade later, in ''Unto the Sons," he tried again to incorporate himself into a book, using the Talese family story as a point of entry. Beginning with his own childhood memories, written this time in the first person but still distantly, Talese kept drifting into other matters.
Now, with ''A Writer's Life," he has given us the fullest treatment of his own story we're likely to get. The book is no traditional memoir. Carefully titled, it is meant to show how a writer lives and works, and how those two things come together.
But ''A Writer's Life" is a patchwork of long-unfinished and abandoned projects, the solution to a problem of outstanding contractual obligation. Talese was supposed to deliver to his publisher a sequel to ''Unto the Sons." Begun in 1992, that sequel, he says, ''was supposed to be my story, an autobiographical account of my semiassimilated life as I experienced it." He ''wrote and rewrote the opening section dozens of times, but never got very far with it." Talese speculates that he was blocked by the imprecision of his persona. ''I had no idea what my story was. I had never given much thought to who I was."
None of this should surprise a devoted Talese reader. Nor should the fact that he finally improvised a solution to the problem of being blocked. ''I had to write something," he tells us. So he assembled a book about watching himself work.
''A Writer's Life" weaves together fragments of material Talese had researched and drafted before. There are extensive sections about New York restaurants and their owners, staffs, and patrons he finds there. He describes a dozen incarnations of restaurants occupying the same space in a building on East 63d Street over the course of many years. Other sections recount Talese's work as a journalist in Selma, Ala., during the Civil Rights era, and a subsequent visit to see how the place seems three decades later. Familiar reminiscences of visits to Italy are included. Framing these sections is Talese's account of going to China, after watching the US women's soccer team beat China in the 1999 World Cup finals, in order to write about the player whose failure to score a free-kick goal had led to her country's defeat.
Talese wants to show, and reenact, the serendipitous ways in which a writer's life and work evolve together. ''A Writer's Life" may not be the sort of autobiography his publishers had in mind, and its pieces only loosely cohere, but it seems the only sort a man could manage who doesn't give much thought to who he is. Talese may be telling us that he is his work, and that as the ''prolific author of unfinished manuscripts" he is being completely honest when he equates the writer's life with the rescuing of so much that once interested him.
Floyd Skloot received the 2004 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction for his memoir, ''In the Shadow of Memory." The sequel, ''A World of Light," was published last year. See ''Bookings," Page C6, for information on a local appearance by Gay Talese.