The sweeping saga of three generations growing up Italian is revealed in Gay Talese's new book. A. N. WILSON tries to take it all in.
Gay Talese, in a suit from Cristiani, his cousins’ shop in Paris, is keeping company with Beckett, the Australian terrier, in his New York house.
Born in Ocean City, New Jersey, in 1932, Gay Talese found himself "olive‑skinned in a freckle‑faced town." In the opening pages of Unto the Sons (Knopf), his latest autobiographical work, he says, “I saw myself always as an alien, an outsider, a drifter who, like the shipwrecked sailors, had arrived by accident. I felt different from my young friends in almost every way, different in the cut of my clothes, the food in my lunch box, the music I heard at home on the record player, the ideas and inner thoughts I revealed on those rare occasions when I was open and honest."
In short, he was Italian, and from the age of ten he had to accustom himself to the knowledge that he had uncles and cousins who were fighting in Mussolini's army. His mother, whose relations were Sicilians though she herself was American born, had a cousin in Brooklyn who was in the Mafia. They knew he was a mafioso because his bowler hat was lined with steel. There is a brilliantly evoked moment toward the beginning of Unto the Sons when the young Talese is roller‑skating near his parents' home in Ocean City, and a large black automobile pulls up, driven by a man wearing a dark jacket and a rounded black hat. The men of Ocean City wore straw hats on sunny days, not black hats. There could be no doubt in the child's mind who this black hat was.
Today in the United States, out of a large Italian population, more than two million people are of Sicilian descent, so there is no doubting that Talese has hit upon a subject of widespread, if not of general, interest for his latest venture in New Journalism.
The book is a sweeping saga tracing the fate of the Taleses and their far‑flung family during World War II. It begins with a wide‑eyed little boy in Ocean City barely aware of what it means to be an Italian. It plunges us back in time and introduces us to two generations of his relations in southern Italy. And it ends with the Allied assault on Monte Cassino, when nearly six hundred tons of bombs were exploded to destroy the ancient fortress of faith where Saint Benedict and his successors had established a cradle of learning that had survived throughout the Dark Ages, all the wars of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the nineteenth century, only to be blitzed by the Americans. The closing scenes of the book are extremely moving. In his father's kitchen, the newspapers lying on the table by the uneaten meals tell the story of the ghastly destruction of Italy. Upstairs in his bedroom, unaware of the significance of all this, the twelve‑year‑old Gay is playing with his toy airplanes, which are suspended from the ceiling by invisible threads. His father enters and smashes these carefully crafted balsa‑wood models with his fists. Furious with his father, Gay charges out of the house, puts on his skates, and hurtles up the street, only to lose his balance and fly through the plate‑glass window of a bakery store. The book ends with Joseph Talese cradling his injured boy, saying, "Non ti spagnare, non ti spagnare," while Gay replies with a murmured "I hate you."
No one can dispute Talese's phenomenal industry. He is a journalist who has made himself famous for amassing information. In Thy Neighbor's Wife, published more than ten years ago, he itemized with painstaking thoroughness the sexual habits of modern Americans. He spent eight years sampling group sex, massage parlors, nudist camps, and every possible variety of heterosexual ersatz commercial erotica. It was just before the knowledge of AIDS hit the world, and from our perspective now, his willingness to expose himself to so many partners in the interest of literary research seems heroic in scale. Nine years before that, he had adopted an analogous thoroughness in his anatomy of the Mafia, Honor Thy Father, a book that was unkindly described by one reviewer as the Mafia's Peyton Place. Each of these books, which made Talese a fortune, had a controversial thesis that could be advanced by those who wished to justify their prolixity. The sex book was designed to blow the lid off American puritanism. The punters who spent millions of dollars buying that book did so partly to get cheap thrills, partly to be persuaded that far from being puritanical, American men loved Playboy magazine, group sex, and massage parlors. The Mafia book was designed to make us revise our judgments of the Mafia. It was, by Talese's contention, a spent force, almost a cozy family network of Sicilian oldsters who had no particular interest any longer in making money out of prostitution or narcotics.
Both these ideas of Talese's were very much disputed at the time, but looking back from a perspective of ten or twenty years, they seem simpleminded, to say the least. The new book does not have a thesis. It is really a sort of Italian Roots‑Radici.
Hamlet's mother begged Polonius for "more matter, with less art." Talese's readers, having slogged their way through several hundred thousand words of his action, must pine for more art and less matter. There are awesome accumulations of detail here, in every section of the story. And this is as true of the American scenes as it is of the Italian ones. His father's dry‑cleaning business is evoked with Balzacian attention to detail ‑the exact way in which the presses work fascinates Talese. So do the exact altar ritual of the church and the scenes with the horrible nuns ‑in particular, the terrifying Sister Rita will live in any reader's memory. In Italy we meet Mussolini, Garibaldi, and hordes of Taleses and Cristianis. Tailors' shops, bars, village squares, are all described in remorseless detail. Not one of the dozens of characters appears without our knowing exactly what he or she looked like. And when, at a fairly late stage of the Italian narrative, the character called Antonio finds a cache of Balzac novels that he had supposed stolen, we are obviously meant to catch the homage that Talese is here paying to the great chronicler of La comedie humaine. He chooses as a tag for the book a quotation from Theodore Zeldin: "The ambitions of people who never become very rich, who founded no dynasty or long-lasting company, and who lived in the middle and lower ranks of the business world, are difficult to write about, because they are seldom recorded. But the character of a society is greatly influenced by the form the ambitions of such men take, and by the extent to which they are satisfied or frustrated."
This is undoubtedly true, and it explains why the novel came to be such an important literary form in the nineteenth century, not merely as entertainment but as a chronicle: the chronicle of precisely such lives as were normally bypassed by the historians. Zola, Balzac, and Dostoyevsky all took us inside small shops, renting houses, and small businesses, and as we turn their pages, we are there, seeing them more vividly than if they had been filmed on camera. The supreme genius of Dostoyevsky, who was also one of the best journalists in history, was in the course of such chronicles not only to analyze the life of the small‑town petit bourgeois but also, with extraordinary foresight, to predict how his boredom, frustration, and self‑hatred related to generalized political and spiritual malaise. When we have read The Possessed, we know not merely that there is going to be a Russian Revolution but why. Balzac and the other French realists attempted no such synthesis or analysis, and it is more in their footsteps that Talese has chosen to tread. It is interesting that after a century in which journalism has become so increasingly sophisticated, with on‑the‑spot reporters everywhere from Martha's Vineyard to the moon, with satellite dishes, TV stations, and devices that enable journalists to chronicle "news" before it happens, that so many of our most talented journalists have seen through the essentially spurious nature of all these technological advancements. Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese seem to have a competition with one another to see who can be the more self‑deprecating, each claiming that the other invented the New Journalism, which led ultimately to their prodigiously successful journalistic fictions. Balzac, Flaubert, and Dostoyevsky had been there before them, of course. This book is not as arresting as Gay Talese's earlier themes, but it will have its followers, and their admiration will not be altogether misplaced.