Honor thy father
I KNEW GAY TALESE BEFORE I EVER MET HIM. THE YEAR WAS 1958. I was twenty-three, living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, employed as an advertising designer, and trying to teach myself to write.
This was not easy. I had taken a few courses in what was then called “English composition” while attending art school at Pratt Institute and in Mexico City, and I soon abandoned painting because the need to write stories kept getting in the way. Something in me demanded sequence and narrative, a primitive urge to say that this happened, and that happened, and as a result, still another event happened. My classrooms in this other art were the books of great writers. Taunted and inspired by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, John O’Hara, and others, I began writing my own imperfect stories on an old Royal typewriter. I even had a plan. In art school, a teacher named Burne Hogarth told us that there were four stages in every artist’s attempt at mastery: imitate, emulate, equal, surpass. I was still so young that I thought I could do the same with writing.
At the same time, I was reading about six newspapers a day, devouring them for information, news, fight results (for I was an avid boxing fan), comic strips, and political opinions. I loved the work of Murray Kempton (even when I did not understand it), Jimmy Cannon, Red Smith, Frank Graham, Dave Anderson. In magazines I soaked up the work of W. C. Heinz and A. J. Liebling.
In early 1958, I became friends with a wonderful young middleweight named Jose (Chegui) Torres. He trained in the Gramercy Gym on Fourteenth Street, five blocks from where I was living. As a fighter, Jose was a terrific puncher, with blurring hand speed, superb defense, and high ring intelligence. He was funny, too, in English and Spanish, laughing at his own jokes, occasionally bursting into song. One late afternoon, I walked up the two flights to the Gramercy, and went in. The gym was packed. Jose abandoned the speed bag and hurried to me.
“You see it?” he said. “You see the story in the Times? You see it?”
“What story?” I said.
“The story about me!” No, I said. Jose turned and hurried into the small office where his manager, Cus D’Amato, sometimes slept on a cot, with a German shepherd as protection against enemies, real and imagined. Then he came back waving a folded section of The New York Times in a gloved hand.
“Read it,” Jose said. “It’s beautiful.”
So it was. An elegantly written portrait of a young fighter, full of exact details about where he lived in Brooklyn, and how he trained, and what he was like in the prize ring. Jose’s name wasn’t mentioned until the last paragraph.
The piece was written by Gay Talese.
After that, I began looking in the Times for new stories by this fellow Talese and was always impressed. He wrote in a deceptively simple style that reminded me in some way of the Latin prose I had studied in high school. The sentences were classically designed, made of concrete nouns and active verbs. They seemed always to end with a hard word, so that a period was not even necessary. Long sentences alternated with short blunt sentences. The effect was sometimes lyrical, tempered by subtle ironies. The paragraphs were as solid as good brickwork. Those smooth paragraphs reminded me of the short stories of Irwin Shaw.
But even in the tight, confined spaces of a daily newspaper, the surface style always was rooted in Talese’s reporting. He knew how to take a reader into a place, revealing what it looked like, and smelled like, where the light came from, and what made up the sound track. He was aware of the way clothes could convey class and taste. The quotes were also used with precision, at once revealing character and moving the story forward. These early pieces for the Times were sketches by a fine draftsman. Later, in his full-length magazine articles and in his books, the work attained the depth and elegance of full-scale paintings.
In 1958, Talese was twenty-six years old. He was born in Ocean City, New Jersey, just south of Atlantic City. His father was a tailor, and the Taleses were one of the few Italian American families among many Irish Americans. He was a shy, wary kid in school and, by his own account, a poor student. But he was learning to observe the world, to read it for signs of danger or