Sports writing, Gay Talese, and the human drama: a review

[Braham Dabscheck is an industrial relations scholar, sports writer and enthusiast, and author of the upcoming title, Reading Baseball: Books, Biographies, and the Business of the Game, to be published this summer, 2011, by FiT. He has written extensively on many aspects of sport, and he continues with that tradition today by offering a review of The Silent Season of a Hero: The Sports Writing of Gay Talese, by Michael Rosenwald, 2010. Dabscheck is a man proper from Down Under, and out of respect for his Australian English, no edits have been made to his vernacular.]

Michael Rosenwald (ed.), The Silent Season of a Hero: The Sports Writing of Gay Talese, Walker & Company, New York, 2010, ISBN 978-0-8027-7753-9, pp. viii + 308, US $16.00, paper.

Gay Talese is a leading American writer and journalist. He is now into his seventh decade of writing. Besides his journalism and The Silent Season of a Herohe has published eleven other books. They range over such matters as the Italian immigrant experience, American sexuality, a mafia family, New York, bridge building, a behind the scenes peek of the New York Times, portraits of leading American characters, musings on writing and an edited work of short stories.

In the Introduction to The Silent Season of a Hero Talese points to a mesmerising sentence penned by Carson McCullen, in a piece entitled The Jockey that appeared in the New Yorker on 23 August 1941. It reads, “If he eats a lamb chop, you can see the shape of it in his stomach a hour later”. He read this in 1956 when he was 24 and found himself fascinated by the imagery of the sentence. He goes on to say that in his writing he sought to apply the skills of fiction writing to non fiction (p. 3). He modelled himself on Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O’Hara and Irwin Shaw, the latter two writers with theNew Yorker.

Talese came to writing by chance. Lorin Angevine, a customer of his father, who was a tailor in Ocean City, New Jersey, asked Talese to contribute articles to his weekly, the Sentinel-Ledger on “High School Highlights”. He also wrote a column called “Sportopics”. He was unsuccessful in his quest to find a college in his region after graduating from high school. Another friend of his father contacted his alma mater, the University of Alabama, who agreed to enrol Talese in a journalism course. By his junior year he was writing sports stories for the Crimson-White. After graduating he landed a job as a copyboy with the New York Times in 1953.

Michael Rosenwald, a staff writer with the Washington Post has brought together some of the best examples of Talese’s sports writing. Rosenwald tells us that Talese was an outsider at school and rejected the approach that his journalism teachers, of who-what-when-where-why, tried to drill into him (pp.17-19). There are also indications that Talese had more than a few battles with editors over his approach to writing. Talese from a young age had worked out how he wanted to write and held steadfast to his views. The proof of his pudding is in its eating.

Talese’s sports writing is really unconcerned with who won or lost. He is more concerned with the playing out of the human drama, of those who find themselves caught up in the spider’s web that is sport. Talese is interested in the oddball, or what others might regard or tangential matters associated with sport. There are three issues which feature in The Silent Season of a Hero. First, there are those persons who operate apart from or outside the gaze of the mainstream of sport; whether they be a boxing referee, the time-keeper of boxing matches at Madison Square Garden, a boxing trainer, a former bare-knuckle boxer, a female golfing star, a female roller derby veteran, a horseshoe maker, a barbell exponent, a mouth guard making dentist or a baseball (off the field) sports agent. Second, he is fascinated by losers; of how they respond to loss and coming to grips with the pressure of unrealised expectations; whether it be Floyd Paterson after being shown up twice by Sonny Liston or the female Chinese soccer player Liu Ying, who missed her kick in the penalty shoot out in the 1999 Female World Cup, which was won by America. Third, the pathos of former stars, such as Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio and Muhammad Ali who, in different ways, find themselves trapped in a glorious life lived long, long ago.

The Silent Season of a Hero comprises 38 chapters. They range in length to little more than a page, pieces written for a newspaper, to longer pieces over 25 pages for magazines or other publications. Seventeen are devoted to boxing, four each to baseball and more general issues, three to golf, two to football and the rest are spread across a broad range of sports. One piece is pure whimsy where Talese gives full rein to his humour. He refers to a social anthropologist, a Dr. Ray Birdwhistell who devoted his life to studying athletes who perform “merely to provide Roman circuses for customers: (p. 200). Amongst other things, this chapter highlights the vulnerability of male athletes, who by stint of circumstances and the demands of monastic minded coaches are forced into all male environments, and “just never seemed to learn how to defend themselves against a marrying woman” (p. 188). The good Dr. also noted how those who can play baseball are subject to the revenge of those hopeless kids in sandlot games who were chosen last and forced to play right field who subsequently became sports writers or managers (p. 194). His more substantive point is that athletes who go to college should be given six year scholarships, so that those, the majority, who do not make it to the big time, can be given a real education to enable them to obtain a career and earn a decent living (p. 200).

The chapters included here range from pieces written by Talese as a school boy and then college reporter to his early professional writing where he established his reputation, through to his more mature years. His skill is in his combination of character and narrative. Talese is able to pull readers into the scene, drama and the various persons he is writing about. Especially with his portrayal of his “out of sight” characters I had the feeling that I could see them, knew how they walked, how they dressed, even what they ate for lunch. His most poignant pieces are those of the stars of yesterday: Joe Louis filling in time in his good natured way; Joe DiMaggio’s loneliness in not knowing what to do with the rest of his life; and the awkwardness of the meeting between Muhammad Ali’s meeting with Fidel Castro in Havana in 1996, when “The Greatest” presented a photo of himself and Malcolm X taken on 1963. El Presidente had many skills, but one of them was not one unscripted small talk.

My favourite chapter is “The Loser” on Floyd Paterson, which was first published in 1964, as he seeks to come to terms with his second loss to Sonny Liston. Amongst other things the chapter demonstrates Paterson’s inability to stand up to school boys who are teasing his daughter. There is something in Talese that enables him to obtain the confidence of those who he finds interesting. Paterson opens up to him and explains how in boxing he found a way to escape the poverty of his family circumstances and his sense of inferiority and self loathing. Paterson told Talese

When you’re hungry, you’re not choosy, and so I chose the thing that was closest to me. That was boxing. One day I just wandered into a gymnasium and boxed a boy. And I beat him. Then I boxed another boy. I beat him too. Then I kept boxing. And winning. And I said, “Here, finally, is something I can do!” (pp. 162-3).

Michael Rosenwald tells us that Gay Talese wrote 37 articles on Floyd Paterson (p. 111). Why so many? While the circumstances of Paterson’s and Talese’s early years are radically different, they had in common the problem of finding something to do. They both turned to “the thing that was closest to” them. In Paterson’s case it was boxing, something which he found himself; for Talese it was the pen; something which his father’s acquaintances found for him. Being an outsider Talese was fascinated by and never lost his compassion for other outsiders and those who struggled against overwhelming odds; whether themselves, the fickle finger of fate or the negotiation of the long and sad descent into irrelevance. This is what gave Gay Talese his edge and propelled him to the centre stage of American writing and journalism.

© Braham Dabscheck

Faculty of Law

University of Melbourne

 

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