Gay Talese finally went home again

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

HE HAD HEARD those stories all his life.

And ever since he was very small, Gay Talese had not wanted to listen.

He did not want to hear Joseph Talese, his immigrant father, tell of life in the family home of Maida, in Southern Italy. He did not want to know about Domenico, the autocratic grandfather whose scoldings had left such a mark on the young Joseph. He did not want to know about St. Francis of Paola, the 15th century monk and patron saint of the region, whose miracles were talked about by townspeople as if they had happened yesterday. He did not want to hear any more talk about the hordes of invaders who had swept through the region since the time of the Roman Empire.

Because most of all, Gay Talese, a young ethnic growing up in the WASP-ish town of Ocean City, N.J., in the 1930s and '40s, had wanted to be an American. He wanted comics and baseball games on the radio, not Puccini and Verdi and tales of a land that sounded so distant, so strange.

Gay Talese went on to become a reporter for the New York Times, a writer of highly praised and imitated magazine profiles for Esquire and then a best-selling author. But in 1982, he was approaching 50; he could not bear not to know these things. And so, he went back to his father and said he was writing a book about what it means to be an Italian-American.

"I knew all about him coming to Ocean City, N.J., in 1922," Mr. Talese, 60, says now. "I had heard those stories. I grew up with them. But I wasn't listening to them. I was bored with them -- totally bored with them.

"But I told him, 'Now I want to listen. Now I have a purpose,' " he goes on, settling back in his Inner Harbor hotel room on a drizzly, dreary day in Baltimore. ' "Remember those stories you told me about your grandfather Domenico? Remember he told you, 'Those who love you make you cry'? I want to know everything all over again.' "

Gay Talese sat down with his father for 60 interview sessions. He went back to Maida countless times, even taking an apartment in Rome to make the visits easier. In his usual painstaking way of doing research, he read hundreds of books. And then, finally, after 10 years of sweat and uncertainty, Gay Talese had his book.

It's called "Unto the Sons," and has just been published by Alfred A. Knopf. Already dubbed an Italian "Roots" by some reviewers, it's the fascinating and often painful recounting of the Talese family's immigrant experience, and of Southern Italians in general.

Like his previous books -- "Honor Thy Father," "The Kingdom and the Power" and "Thy Neighbor's Wife" -- "Unto the Sons" is an ambitious work. At 635 pages, it's staggering in scope, and crammed with details not only about the Taleses, but also the history of Maida, the role of Southern Italy in European history, and the great migration of Italians to America in the 19th century and the assimilation of their descendants in the next.

And, like his previous books, "Unto the Sons" has gotten both extravagant praise and critical knocks. The Boston Globe called it "a compelling, dazzlingly detailed narrative." But Christopher Lehman-Haupt, in the New York Times, was cutting: "Worst of all, Talese suffers from the Switzerland Syndrome. You ask him what time it is, and he tells you the history of Switzerland."

Indeed, in conversation, Mr. Talese cannot respond to a question with a one-sentence answer, and more than once on this morning he looks up sheepishly and says, "Oh boy, I'm losing my train of thought." But he is an extremely engaging conversationalist; he is forever crafting his story, bit by bit, adding little details and shaping the narrative -- much as one would construct a home without a blueprint, but by building brick by brick. Only when he is finished and steps back can he see what he has made.

Asked how he finds it back on a book-promotion tour after a 10-year absence, Mr. Talese proceeds with a charming 10-minute digression on working at the New York Times from 1955 to 1965, when he began to make himself a name as an original writer of non-fiction.

"It was, I think, the best time of my life," he says reflectively. "That 10-year period was for me just the high point, the happiest not only in terms of professional satisfactions but sheer happiness. I loved the city room, the camaraderie with reporters who were all around the same age -- mid-20s to the mid-30s. It was about being young and being active, and being cynical and being idealistic and being everywhere."

"He was wonderful to work with as a reporter because he took such care with his writing," says Neil Sheehan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author ("A Bright Shining Lie") and fellow ex-Timesman. "What Gay did each time was attempt to make his story a little gem in itself. He'd be at the typewriter until the last minute, polishing his story."

Mr. Talese considers the books that he has written since leaving the Times in 1965 merely extensions of his pieces for the paper. "Even when I was a newspaperman, I did things differently. I was always looking for the story that wasn't really a story and trying to make it a story."

His first best-seller, "The Kingdom and the Power," was a compelling inside look at the Times that remains a landmark of journalistic study. Two years later, in 1971, he did "Honor Thy Father," an equally intriguing nuts-and-bolts look at the Mafia that cemented his reputation for unorthodox research: He lived for months at a time in New York with one member of the Bonanno crime family.

But the controversy over being that intimate with the Mafia was small compared to the furor when "Thy Neighbor's Wife," his eight-year study of America's changing attitudes toward sex and sexuality, was published in 1980. The book became a huge best-seller, but Mr. Talese was ridiculed for such questionable decisions as helping operate a massage parlor and engaging in (and writing about) numerous extramarital frolics that he says today were merely part of doing his job.

"When I wanted to know who the 'obscene' people really were, just as I had wanted to know who the Mafia people really were, I went to live with the sinners," he says with a certain guilelessness that is both puzzling and endearing. "Naively, I thought I would be regarded as a reporter for this, just as I had been regarded as a reporter -- for better or for worse -- in the book on the Times and the Mafia book."

Although "Unto the Sons" doesn't contain passages as potentially embarrassing as some in "Thy Neighbor's Wife" -- nothing about swimming with nudists, say, or orgies at the legendary Sandstone resort -- it does have some deeply personal parts. Mr. Talese writes achingly about feeling forever estranged from his family and his surroundings ("I was olive-skinned in a freckle-faced town"), and about the alienation felt by so many Italian immigrants. His father, for instance, tried mightily to embrace his new land but still felt real anguish as he listened to radio reports detailing the attack of Southern Italy by Allied troops during World War II.

And though Mr. Talese says he plans to continue his study of the Italian-American experience in at least one more book, he does feel that he has attained some personal goals as well from "Unto the Sons" -- this from a man who says he began writing in the Times about obscure people in New York, the outsiders, because he identified so closely with them.

"Certainly I am out of step," he says. "I always was. And now I know why. I mean, I'm coming from a fractured background. I was never mainstream. I wanted to be -- who didn't? But it was never going to work out."

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