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Eloquent, humorous and an eye for detail

Not Muhammad Ali, but Ali’s personal photographer. Not Frank Sinatra, but Sinatra’s fans, staffers and ex-wives. Not the star reporter at the New York Times, but the guy who writes the obituaries.

If anything, Gay Talese has a knack for choosing original subjects.

Talese is a native of New Jersey who, in the 1960s, helped shape the New Journalism movement that also included Truman Capote, Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe. He started out as a sports reporter for the New York Times in the mid fifties, but quickly broadened his purview to publications ranging from Esquire and Harper’s to the New Yorker.

There’s an irony in this: ‘thinking outside the box’ and ‘off the beaten path’ are clichés in spite of themselves. They do fit Gay Talese very well, however, as he chose to write not about Sonny Liston, the 1962 world heavyweight champion in boxing, but about Floyd Patterson, the one who came in second. Or take the title of the first piece he ever did for Esquire: New York is a City of Things Unnoticed – in it, Talese described New York not as a city of towering architecture, yellow cabs and celebrities, but rather as a city harboring stray cats, doormen, hatcheck girls and telephone operators.

New York is a City of Things Unnoticed is the opening piece in The Gay Talese Reader (2004), an anthology that includes some of his finest pieces of literary non-fiction, such as Frank Sinatra has a Cold and The Loser.

Those who like the TV series Mad Men will enjoy Talese’s rendering of the corporate and media landscape of New York in the early 1960s. He visits the editorial offices of Vogue magazine, inhabited by ‘a group of suave and wrinkle-proof women, who call one another “dear” and “dahling,” and can speak in italics and curse in French’). He describes the newsroom of the New York Times (where all day long, reporters ‘are running this way and that, pursuing the here and the now’). And he chronicles the legendary parties hosted by the 26-year-olds who used to run the Paris Review, which today is still one of the most influential literary magazines around, even if its parties aren’t quite so wild anymore.

Talese’s style is eloquent yet humorous, and his eye for detail – for the quaint and the odd, for the stuff that goes down in the shadows cast by heroes – is matched by few. The Gay Talese Reader serves as a great introduction for the uninitiated – and initiated one should certainly be.

 

Lynn Berger

In this series, three reviewers write about their favourite books, recent or not so recent

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