Wednesday, July 05, 2006

In his latest (and final?) literary installment, “A Writer’s Life” Gay Talese is rather frank about the stuff from which it is woven. While not tarrying over the matter, the master of literary fiction makes it quite clear that some time in the ’90s he was pretty late with a book to his publisher.

Later, as we cruise through various and vaguely related topics, borne along by the flow of his mellifluous prose, Talese is again frank and fun enough to offer up his pitches, and the responses of N.Y.C. literary illuminati, such as Tina Brown.

Even with queries referring back to his big,“Honor Thy Father,” “Unto the Sons" -bestsellers - the writer is subjected to rejection with such lines as, “At your level, we need a book with a very large sales potential. I don’t think this is it.”

(An editor named Jonathan Segal)

So it is a writer’s life, as the title proclaims, and Talese makes use of the large and copious files he maintained over the years while flailing from subject-to-subject, trying to generate a book that he confesses to having been “blocked” on.

Still cookin’, but old enough to have witnessed things rendered ancient history by 24-hour news cycles, Talese deftly ties his times to his failed proposals that included stories about a cursed building that served as a graveyard for expensive restaurants in his Upper East Side neighborhood, the castration case of Lorena Bobbitt, the peculiar historical saga of Selma, Alabama, or the plight of an ill-starred member of the Chinese national womens soccer team.

The author takes you through these projects of his, shedding light thanks to his low-key, but persistent way of gaining access to people, leveraging his writer’s celebrity as well as possible, hanging around making observations both detailed and general in nature.

highwayscribery’s familiarity with Talese dates back, and is limited, to his reading of “Unto the Sons,” which the scribe’s dad gave to him. Get it? “Unto to the Sons?” It was a charming and in-depth story focusing upon life in Talese's East Coast, Italian-American family, and their forebears in Calabria, Italy.

The paternal half of the scribe’s pedigree traces back to Calabria and so the book was a kind of family tree done with another family, but which provided a good idea regarding this unique province of origin.

The cover jacket of “A Writers Life” features a b&w photo of Talese captured in a thin-lipped half-smile the scribe’s old man possesses, and which will one day (too soon) be passed onto the highway scribe.

So, anyway, there is an interest in Talese that propelled highwayscribery through this collection of anecdotes by a man of his times.

Among the interesting and unexpected turns in Talese’s life was a stint down in Alabama, where he went to university. Years later, in the heat of the civil rights confrontation in the Deep South, this familiarity netted him a plum assignment covering the famed March on Selma, which led to a rather public and televised bloodletting.

In addition to his eye-witness account of what happened, not only at the fateful “bridge” but elsewhere in town beyond the camera’s eye, Talese provides ample coverage of a return trip to gauge the progress between races in Selma. His cautious eyes sees improvements in some places, but subtle retreats elsewhere.

In this section of “A Writer’s Life” Talese is at his best, using what he refers to as secondary characters to render the true portrait of a subject.

Talese is the king of digression, starting with an Italian waiter at Elaine’s in New York, telling you about Elaine, about the waiter, some about the waiter’s father, about the new restaurant the waiter was planning to open, about the waiter’s wife’s sneaking suspicion the place is cursed (she was right), something about her life, before fishtailing off into a history about the building in which the restaurant was to be lodged.

But we say master because it all works as Talese weaves the impulses and energies of distant and disparate occurrences into one another, seeing chains of events and people affecting one another’s lives without wanting or even intending to; oft times never knowing.

Although the writer and the book travel well, “A Writer’s Life” has a distinctly New York cast to it. Talese enjoyed fame throughout his career and therefore had access to some of Gotham’s tonier haunts and denizens. At time it’s got a definite “Vanity Fair” feel to it, a touch of the Dominique Dunne, recounting the names of hoo-hahs at fancy schmanzy eateries, but good for him.

And, in the end, that may say something about the change in publishing and what the market deemed doable in this particular writer's life.

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