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The journalist and the liar: Steve Braunias on journalism’s fear of fiction

Steve Braunias reviews a peculiar new book by a living legend of American journalism.

This is the way the publishing career ends for one of the great innovators of literary journalism: not with a whimper, but a bang, the story blowing up in his face. American writer Gay Talese’s latest book – and maybe his last; the silly old fool is 82, and has always worked slowly, patiently, and up until now painstakingly – tells the trueish story of a voyeur who owned a motel near Denver, and who spent much of his adult life lying in a sort of crawlspace in the ceiling to spy on his guests having sex. The motelier made notes and observations, and as such compiled a secret history of Americans as they really are, naked and fucking. He gave Talese his exclusive story. It’s not told very well, and it doesn’t have a narrative arc or sense of motion, of things leading inexorably towards something because nothing really happens other than the voyeur watches and beats off for years and years, and it entirely lacks the kind of artistry that will forever make Talese’s classic 1950s journalism read so thrillingly. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that some or part of it appears to be bullshit.

The Washington Post conducted a property search, and discovered that the voyeur – Gerald Foos – didn’t actually own or live at the motel from 1980 to 1988. He bought it back, and continued his peeping. But he told Talese that his spying was uninterrupted from the mid 1960s through to the late 1990s. He also told Talese he once witnessed a murder, but that seems totally bogus. “I should not have believed a word he said,” Talese said when the Post approached him for comment. He called Foos “a faker,” “a liar,” “a creep” and “close to a fraud.” He disavowed the book: “Its credibility is down the toilet.”

The day after the story appeared, however, Talese saw things differently. He released a statement: “I was upset and probably said some things I didn’t, and don’t, mean.” The story, he said, stood up. It didn’t matter that Foos was absent for those eight years; it’s not the period covered in the book. Please, he said, ignore previous remarks, and go forth and buy! But it was too late. A disavowal of a disavowal is one disavowal too many. The book is tainted. It’s damaged goods. A true story is a true story, it can’t be mostly or even overwhelmingly true. Talese and his stupid project are a laughing stock. His book is a pie in his face, a bomb he held in his hands.

Screengrab of Talese's New Yorker feature on Foos

The only known image of Foos appeared in Talese’s New Yorker article

Journalism is built on a house of cards. It rests on facts. Every journalist knows the despair and humiliation of spelling someone’s name incorrectly or making some other elementary howler. At its most extreme, getting it wrong is cause for legal action, but even benign errors are harrowing. No amount of corrections and clarifications columns can ever make up for the moment when a journalist realises their blunder. They hold their head in their hands and they wish the ground would swallow them up and they know what it is like be horribly, utterly stupid.

There are the occasional spectacular cases where a journalist has knowingly and deliberately made shit up. Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair were busted for their respective falsehoods at the New Republic and New York Times. John Manukia was sacked by the Herald on Sunday in 2005 for writing a story based on an interview that never happened. All were guilty of the gravest sin in journalism: imagination. A kind of dark thrill surrounds their work; they tore up journalism’s contract, they ran free, they were demonic. Actually they were just liars.

More recently another New Zealand journalist quietly left the trade after similar offences. I knew him a little bit. A little bit was more than enough, because I couldn’t stand the sight of him. Like most scornful and arrogant people, he was thick. It was at once shocking but not surprising when I heard that he’d got busted for lying.

I asked one of his ex-colleagues what went down. They emailed, “He was a shocker. Made stuff up, couldn’t interview his way out of a paper bag – my flatmate was a photog and used to come home almost in tears of cringe after having sat through his interviews.

“Couldn’t be trusted on the most menial of jobs. [The chief reporter] would ask him about facts that seemed dubious in his yarns and he’d lie and say yes that was right then it’d run and the person would ring up and be like wtf that’s not true. I think in the end he just resigned before they had to boot him. Now is an egg on Twitter who sends abusive messages to journos. Lol.”

Gay Talese at home, 2007 (Image: David Shankbone)

Gay Talese at home, 2007 (Image: David Shankbone)

*

As a species we value and cherish nothing more than the land of make-believe. Live that fantasy. But journalism’s greatest fear is exactly that – it’s afraid of fiction. When Talese more or less invented and certainly perfected the New Journalism, he was indignant, furious even, at any suspicion that he’d played fast and loose with the facts. His stories were so vivid and so imaginative that it wasn’t unreasonable to think he’d used that old rag known as creative license. But he was always at pains to say that, yes, although he used techniques of fiction, he only ever actually wrote nonfiction. His classic 1966 story “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” starts off with a brilliant set-piece – Sinatra in a nightclub, sour and unhappy (he has a cold), squaring up to an innocent passerby on account of the very important reason he doesn’t like his boots.

“Hey. Those Italian boots?”

“No.”

“Spanish?”

“No.”

“Are they English boots?”

“Look, is there any reason why you’re talking to me?”

“I don’t like the way you’re dressed….”

Such tense and revealing dialogue, verbatim. In his introduction to Fame & Obscurity, a 1970 anthology of his greatest hits, Talese writes, “The new journalism though often reading like fiction, is not fiction, and is as reliable as the most reliable reportage.” And in an interview with the Paris Review, he said, “When I use a person’s real name, I’m saying to the reader, You can check me out. I wanted to show that you can write about real people, and about their private lives—which has always been the domain of a fiction writer. I never wanted to take the easy way: the anonymous character, the composite character. So many journalists and writers are liars. You know who they are….”

He means the great New Yorker journalist Joseph Mitchell, who was quite open about his use of “composite characters”, a radical technique of taking things from two or sometimes several people who he’d interviewed, and combining them into one character. The object was to get at a wider truth. Mitchell’s experiment turned the best of his stories – including the two famous profiles of raving lunatic Joe Gould – into a powerful art. But they remain troubling. They transgress the basic moral code of journalism. Truman Capote’s masterpiece In Cold Blood, which he called “the nonfiction novel”, has the same kind of disturbances. Those long, incredible set-pieces where the two killers exchange lively dialogue in cars and fleapit hotels, for instance – are they real? Is that what they actually said? If not, then how much of the rest of the book is a nonsense?

Truman Capote also blurred fiction and non-fiction in 'In Cold Blood'. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Truman Capote (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The same questions tip over The Voyeur’s Motel like a box of apples. We don’t know if what we’re about to read is rotten, or sound. But maybe the real problem is the lack of artistry or story-telling, because its flat, boring recitation of Foos whacking off to this couple and those lesbians and that lonely masturbating housewife, etc, raises another, louder question: who fucking cares?

It’s a sleazy little project, not that there’s anything wrong with that; tawdriness can make for a cracking yarn. It’s just that it’s all so minor. Foos presents himself as a “sex researcher”. He took a lot of notes. It’s true that American life changes before his eyes. He’s the dedicated witness of a nation fucking. He measures the statistical rise in oral sex, and mixed-race couples. But his observations are banal (“She stimulated her clitoris with the third finger of her right hand and then appeared to become excited”, etc), and it may be unwise to entirely believe his statistical tables of the female orgasm. Talese jots it all down, nodding somberly.

There are a thousand boring saws about journalism. First draft of history, etc. The one I like best is: “Literature in a hurry.” Get it right, fast. But Talese got it wrong, slowly. The book took three years to write. And then the Washington Post on the line, telling him that his source was full of shit. His panicked response (“I should not have believed a word he said”) was Talese with his head in his hands, wishing the ground would swallow him up.

Well, he can cry all the way to the bank. Spielberg has bought the movie rights, and apparently Sam Mendes will direct. But just as the story would surely have been better told in print as a single, lengthy New Yorker kind of story, something in the vicinity of 10,000 words (or even just as 450 screeching words in the Herald on Sunday: “Carolyn Meng Yee investigates”), wouldn’t it be better told on screen as an HBO series? A long and considered narrative unfolding would work wonders for The Voyeur’s Motel. Foos is like Walter in Breaking Bad, or Dexter in Dexter – a middle-class and essentially decent American with a double life. High school teacher is actually a drug baron. Forensic scientist is actually a serial killer. Motelier is actually one of America’s most seasoned, rigorous voyeurs…

Gay Talese and his wife (Photo by Scott Eells/Getty Images)

Gay Talese and his wife (Photo by Scott Eells/Getty Images)

*

 

Foos got in touch with Talese in 1980. He told Talese his story, and invited him to the motel. He showed Talese the crawlspace. Together, they watched guests have sex. Once, Talese’s tie slipped through a crack in the ceiling, just above the head of a woman who was giving her lover a blow-job. Foos was outraged at the indiscretion. A strange story, with its Freudian symbols running amok – the tie as phallic symbol, penetrating Foos’s private domain.

In any case, Foos refused to allow his real name to be used. No real name, no story, said Talese, true to his code. Foos kept in touch. Eventually, in 2013, he gave Talese the permission he needed, and the legendary author of “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold”, and the even more exquisitely formed “The Silent Season of a Hero” (a beautiful profile of Joe di Maggio, again with an opening set-piece which still causes palpitations to read today, and marvel at its skill), stepped forward and lit the fuse.

Ba-boom. There has been a certain schadenfreude about Talese’s clanger. It’s hard to take him seriously ever since he was made to look ridiculous, which may or may not be the same thing as making him look as he really is, in a famous 1973 profile by Aaron Latham in New York magazine. The headline: “An Evening in the Nude With Gay Talese.”

Talese was conducting research for a book (Thy Neighbour’s Wife) about sex in America. And so Latham followed him to a massage parlour, an orgy, and a nudist health spa. It included this excruciating dialogue between Talese and a girl called Amy, who “reached out and took hold of Gay’s penis as calmly as if it had been a pool cue.”

“I’m going to tear it off,” she said.

“I love it. I love it,” he said. “Do it. I have dreams about it. I have fantasies about it.”

Amy gave another pull and repeated her threat: “I’m going to tear it off.”

Latham watched and listened. Talese was open. Talese was unashamed. Talese said to Latham, “Sure, I would have liked to screw my mother.”

The story was very arch, very hurtful. You don’t survive profiles like that; many people will remember you as the asshole you were made out to be. Talese moaned about the New York story at length in the Paris Review: “I didn’t have that much dignity after that was published. Whatever pride I might have had in the way I worked was open to question because it looked as if I were having an erotic experience on an expense account….I was made to feel like I was an essentially wicked, perverted person. But I didn’t think I was. I was just interested, endlessly interested, foolishly, unadulteratedly, with unparalleled vigor, interested in all I could do to extend my range, to extend the boundaries of my own particular experience.”

He was interested, foolishly, unadulteratedly, with unparalleled vigour, interested in sex. It hooked him then and it hooked him again with this awful – worse, factually compromised – biography of a peeper.

Talese and Foos, Foos and Talese. The book’s obsessive subject is coupling, but Talese and Foos are the most fascinating couple in The Voyeur’s Motel. Why did Talese ever put his trust in such an obvious flake? But perhaps the real question is: was he fated to put his trust in such an obvious flake? Their relationship is like one of those doomed affairs that Janet Malcolm studies in her greatest works of journalism – The Journalist and the Murderer, In the Freud Archives, The Silent Woman. Each book, in part, is a precise, almost surgical examination of the way two people move from trust to betrayal.

Talese's 1966 feature 'Frank Sinatra Has a Cold' is considered the greatest profile ever published (Screengrab: Esquire)

Talese’s 1966 feature ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold’ is considered the greatest profile ever published (Screengrab: Esquire)

Malcolm would write a wonderful portrait of Talese and Foos, the sucker and the con, the old man and the leech. Talese surely saw something of himself in Foos – a diligent and serious sex researcher, toiling away over acres of naked flesh, afraid of being seen as “an essentially wicked, perverted person”. He notes, “His motives and research were similar to mine when I wrote Thy Neighbour’s Wife.” Like a criminal, Talese went back to the scene of the crime; and he got busted all over again, made to look foolish all over again, the lure of sex reaching out like Amy grabbing his cock at the health spa.

Talese and Foos, Foos and Talese. Foos kept in touch with Talese over the years, and you sense the weariness as the author files away the latest dreary field notes (“She removed a large beautiful breast from her bra”, etc). Talese had all but forgotten about the Foos story until the motelier agreed to put his name on the record. Of course Talese leaped at the chance; he recognised he had a good, crazy story on his hands, and he also knew he’d hit paydirt. It would sell.

And yet The Voyeur’s Motel has a reluctance about it. Every journalist knows the ennui of approaching a story they don’t want to do. With luck, the story will be spiked, or something else will come up. It feels like death having to get on with it. The staring at people’s faces as they tell their tedious version of events, the fingers fat and heavy on the keyboard… An existential boredom seeps into the pages of The Voyeur’s Motel. Maybe he couldn’t stir himself to make the book come alive. Maybe he just didn’t believe in it.

It won’t achieve what Capote did with Perry Smith in In Cold Blood, and Joseph Mitchell did with Joe Gould, and make Foos immortal. No one will remember his name. Not Talese’s fault. Perry Smith was vivid and monstrous, Joe Gould was raving mad; Foos was just a guy who liked to covertly watch other people having sex. As for Aaron Latham, Talese’s assassin at New York magazine, no one remembers his name, either. A couple of his magazine stories got turned into films (Urban Cowboy, Perfect) and he wrote a few novels, and in 1991 he published The Frozen Leopard, a kind of travel book which tells the lugubrious story of travelling around Africa in search of a cure for his depression. Los Angeles Times: “This is the prose of bad children’s books.”

Talese, though, left behind some gold. His early work is a monument to a talent which at least resembles genius. His writing was on full alert, it noticed everything. He found a new and dazzling way to present literature in a hurry. It reads better than a lot of fiction, and it got its facts right. His achievement will last long after this latest book disappears. So he blundered. The way of all hacks is to take on the wrong subjects. Talese and Foos, Foos and Talese; the song that plays in the background of The Voyeur’s Motel is the sad, mournful ballad of the legendary writer who met a complete wanker.


The Voyeur’s Motel (Grove Press, $32.99) by Gay Talese is available at Unity Books.

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