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A Writer's Life Gay Talese Alfred A. Knopf: 430 pp., $26

May 21, 2006|Susan Salter Reynolds | Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

LATE in his new book, "A Writer's Life," Gay Talese admits, "I had never had business cards. How should I describe my business?" In another passage, he describes a memo he once sent himself: "Do I have 'Writer's Block'? No, you're not suffering from 'Writer's Block,' you're just showing good judgment in not publishing anything at this time. You're demonstrating concern for readers in not burdening them with bad writing.... There should be a National Book Award given annually to certain writers for NOT WRITING." That, the author all but claims, is a prize he could win.

Picture Talese as he pictures himself: drifting through his Manhattan apartment, his afternoon tennis game canceled, while his wife, Doubleday editor Nan Talese, sits upstairs in her office surrounded by manuscripts that will one day be published to, he imagines, glowing reviews. Harrumph. Between 1995 and 1999, Talese admits, he wrote a grand total of 54 1/2 pages. He wanders the city, obsessed with one building, at 206 E. 63rd St., that has housed at least 10 failed restaurants in as many years. "[I]t is pertinent to acknowledge," he admits, "that during my forty-year career as a researching writer, I have invested heavily in the wasting of time."

You have to love him: the son of a custom tailor from Calabria, a boy who grew up in Brooklyn, where the Irish called him "Mussolini," a young sportswriter for the New York Times always fascinated by figures like prizefighter Floyd Patterson, a freelance author who pursues with special fervor the stories his editors refuse to assign him, a writer who cannot get the hang of computers, falling back on yellow pad and pencil, IBM electric and Olivetti, a worrier, one of the best-dressed men of our era. Here is a man who has spent a lifetime refusing to follow the advice of his much-loved father: Devote yourself to "one topic and then finish it, be done with it."

Or perhaps he has followed that advice to a fault, to a degree not entirely suitable to the fast-paced world of journalism. Certainly, "A Writer's Life," so carefully woven, has the effect, at times, of making the reader worry, actually worry, about him. "I felt that I was losing perspective as a writer because I had been spending too much time gathering information without pausing to evaluate it," Talese writes about his fixation with 206 E. 63rd St. "What did I intend to do with all this material? What was my story?"

What is his story? It would be trite to say that it is the other side of the American dream. After all, Talese is a master, not of the big story but of the telling detail, "the vibrations of great times and tall deeds," he writes, quoting E.B. White. He describes the 14 pairs of shoes in a prizefighter's one-room apartment, Lorena Bobbitt's exquisitely manicured nails, the number 13 worn by the Chinese soccer player whose misplaced kick brought shame to her team in the 1999 World Cup soccer finale.

Talese's devotion to real-time reporting has always served him better in book form. He requires space. "Writing," he notes, "is often like driving a truck at night without headlights, losing your way along the road, and spending a decade in a ditch." There are, of course, exceptions. Talese admits that his 10 years at the New York Times were "much simpler" than writing books and freelance articles. One can imagine that the looming deadline might be a great gift. "I had never had so much fun as a writer as when working on daily assignments," he admits.

And yet Talese allows himself a few too many complaints about former employers. A photo that was omitted by New York Times' metro editor Gerald Boyd, the 10,000-word piece he spent six months writing for the New Yorker that Tina Brown refused to run. Rejections, bad headlines and overzealous editors are certainly part of a writer's life, but at times, Talese veers perilously close to using his memoir to set the record straight, which is not what memoirs should be for.

"[N]othing published was more perishable than what we wrote," Talese writes of his time in daily journalism.

The same cannot be said of his books: "The Kingdom and the Power" (1969), "Honor Thy Father" (1971), "Thy Neighbor's Wife" (1981) and "Unto the Sons" (1992). For all the moments he felt as if he might be barking up the wrong lead, for all the times he felt like a "courier service" to his influential editor-wife, for all his inexplicable inability to shake certain fascinations and superstitions, Talese has filled a gap in our understanding of ourselves as Americans, in a way that only the son of an immigrant could. He occupies a very specific niche.

You indulge him or you don't. You accept his views on power and status and gender or you don't. And yet, most mysterious, despite his insistence on writing himself into the corner of every frame, his revealing of every motive, every moment of false pride (including the hope that one night in Beijing, his dining partners would notice how well he used chopsticks), he remains annoyingly elusive; the man in the fedora on the edge of the story; scrupulous, smiling, listening, watching. *

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