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Christian Science Monitor
Monday, May 8th, 2006
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A Writer's Life

by Gay Talese

A Life Spent Chasing Stories

A review by Erik Spanberg

In his memoir on life as a writer, Gay Talese includes several memos he had written to himself while pursuing two long-dormant potential book projects.

"More writers should be doing what you're doing -- NOT writing," Talese tells himself. "There's so much bad writing out there, why add to it?"

This bit of scolding leaps out from A Writer's Life, a work defined by Talese's elegant, erudite writing and marked by his lifelong (and often wayward) pursuit of disparate story threads.

Early in the book, Talese acknowledges missing a slew of deadlines while searching for his next book topic -- his last major work was published in 1992 -- and a propensity for chasing several story strands at the same time.

Through much of A Writer's Life, Talese meanders along. He offers us an insider's look at the life of a nonpareil nonfiction writer: days, weeks, months, and years of waiting, canvassing, traveling, scribbling, working and reworking, writing and rewriting.

This makes for much less a memoir of Talese's life than a memoir of his writing life, a fine but important distinction. The book begins and ends with a surprising (for author and audience alike) obsession: Talese hopes to find and interview the women's Chinese soccer player whose errant overtime kick proved to be the decisive play in the 1999 Women's World Cup championship match won by the USA.

A self-described "nonfiction writer with a soft heart for secondary characters," Talese (along with his wife, literary editor Nan Talese) may represent the New York literary aristocracy, but he still writes with relish about the odd, largely anonymous (or noncelebrity, anyway) characters he encounters in his peregrinations.

A typical example: While researching a restaurant for a forever-doomed book project, the author describes not only each kitchen-staff member, but also relates the life stories of many of the staffers. Talese describes one Russian waiter as "a tall and prematurely balding man of twenty-seven with an oval face, brown eyes, a courteous manner (his father and grandfather had both been Soviet diplomats, serving, respectively, in Czechoslovakia and Austria), and a well-defined muscular body that he maintained by working out in a gym for two hours every afternoon...."

This penchant for thorough description can, at times, prove overwhelming, as so many characters and lineages flow through these pages that one occasionally winds up in need of a scorecard.

Throughout his career, however, these close observations have stood Talese in good stead, whether penning what is regarded by many as the finest magazine profile in American letters (his harrowing portrait of Frank Sinatra, written for Esquire in 1966) or in past books, including his legendary history of The New York Times, The Kingdom and the Power.

Indeed, when Talese discusses those past glories, as well as his assignments for the Times covering the Selma, Ala., civil rights march in 1965 and a silver-anniversary reassessment in 1990, he proves no less enthralling.

Ample time in this memoir is dedicated to the familiar New York writerly practices of bemoaning missed publishing deadlines; whiling away endless hours at various overpriced restaurants; and interviewing the waiters, bartenders, and owners catering to the literati (including Elaine Kaufman, proprietress of New York's famed Elaine's).

Talese also tells of his ill-fated assignment covering the John and Lorena Bobbitt mutilation trial in 1993 and 1994 for The New Yorker. After spending six months covering the trial and its build-up, and conducting exhaustive research, Talese's article is declined by then-editor Tina Brown, who suggests it might instead make a short book. (It didn't).

And that Chinese soccer player? Talese flew to China several times, landed interviews, did extensive research and then watched her career disintegrate.

Talese is fortunate in that he has the perfect mind-set for these maddening pursuits. Rather than pursuing any particular goal, Talese prefers to keep looking, waiting for the right moment. In this case, even the wrong moments -- the dead-end leads and interviews, the interminable waiting -- often end up making for what Tom Wolfe, Talese's fellow New Journalism literary lion, calls the Right Stuff.

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