Revealed are a few tools and tricks of the Talesian trade, among them the 7-by-3 cardboard squares, salvaged from his laundered dress shirts, that he uses for notetaking, sometimes from the privacy of a bathroom stall. (Talese’s habit of neglecting to use a tape recorder, along with special interests that could be called prurient — massage parlors and motel voyeurism among them — has led some journalism watchdogs to bark.) Another, more compelling tic: his familiar method of linking disparate individuals in a sort of baton-passing from chapter to chapter.
Part 1 is about Talese’s tenure at The New York Times, where a more seasoned reporter once advised him, “Young man, never interview anyone over the phone if you can help it.” (Compared with email, text and Gchat, of course, the phone now seems like a holy relic.)
Renowned for his epic book about this newspaper and its leaders, “The Kingdom and the Power” (1969), an ur-text of media studies, Talese here pans over its underlings and undersung — the linotype operators and printers, a substantial number of them “deaf mutes,” who would repair for drinks to Gough’s Chop House in actually ink-stained four-corner hats; and copyreaders, those “private, pensive and pondering individuals.”
He zeros in on one of them, Alden Whitman, who became a chief obituary writer (he called himself the “happy oarsman on the Styx”), whom Talese also profiled for Esquire, with considerably more access than Sinatra gave. The piece got Whitman a seat next to Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” These were different times.
Talese has tried, and by many lights failed, at straightforward memoir before, namely the 2006 rambler “A Writer’s Life.” “Bartleby and Me” is more of an ambler, in which he appears to give his finger to the form by filigreeing a couple of his ironclad hits and then tacking on a new gargoyle of a tale. He’s done it his way, and one can imagine him and Sinatra’s ghost sharing a song-and-dance number, a couple of satisfied sailors on the town.
BARTLEBY AND ME: Reflections of an Old Scrivener | By Gay Talese | 320 pp. | Mariner Books | $28.99