This is my review of Frank Sinatra Has a Cold: And Other Essays (Penguin Modern Classics) by Gay Talese.
“A non-fiction writer pursuing the literature of reality” – even before I came across the groundbreaking pioneer of “New Journalism, Gay Talese’s, description of himself, I had thought his accounts of meetings with celebrities read like novels, and his fly-on-the-wall presence so self-effacing that many of the episodes could have been fictionalised.
His writing reminds me of Alistair Cooke’s “Letters from America”, with the same artful trick of rambling for a purpose, gradually ensnaring you in topics you would not expect to enjoy. For instance, there are three articles centred on boxers, one on Frank Sinatra, another on life behind the scenes at Vogue magazine, none of which are subjects of any interest to me at all, but Talese’s sharp observation and fluid, unpretentious prose sucks you into a range of different and unfamiliar worlds.
As he explains in “Origins of a nonfiction writer” it was listening behind the counter in his mother’s dress shop that taught him the importance of listening without interruption, of asking “And what did you feel? ” to get at the “interior monologue” illustrated so effectively in the “loser” Floyd Patterson’s moving reliving of his humiliating defeat in a fight with Sonny Liston.
I particularly like Talese’s portrait of the actor Peter O’Toole at the height of his fame, yet clearly troubled from his childhood in Catholic Ireland. “I am a left-hander who was made to be right-handed,” he explains, displaying his right hand scarred and deformed from being constantly used as “a kind of violent weapon……smashing through glass, into concrete, against other people, whereas his left hand is “long and smooth as a lily”.
In the very different context of a Parkinson-afflicted Mohammed Ali on a goodwill trip to Cuba, Talese tells you a lot about Havana through his description of “a memory lane of old American automobiles chugging along….various vehicular collages created out of Cadillac grilles and Oldsmobile axles…patched with pieces of oil-drum…with kitchen utensils and pre-Batista lawn mowers …and other gadgets which have elevated the craft of tinkering in Cuba to a high art”.
My only reservation about this surprisingly gripping short selection of essays is that it is a bit dated, being set mainly in the `60s and involving characters likely to be outside the experience of most readers under 40. So, the pieces are a mixture of striking, wrily humorous or thought-provoking situations and dialogues, interspersed with mundane passages you may be tempted to skip – risky, since you may miss a gem.