Book Review: Frank Sinatra Has a Cold and Other Essays by Gay Talese

The title piece of this collection was mentioned in The Girl in the Spider’s Web and after a quick Google I decided to check out Talese’s writing. And I’m glad I did so.

Talese is a fantastic writer with a great eye for detail and small, quiet moments. His writing is engaging, warm and filled with clever observation. He was one of the front runners of “New Journalism” which was more subjective, literary and informal than what had come before. 

Talese puts you right in the heart of his stories and the focus of his pieces is informed by his attitudes and feelings. He writes about boxer Floyd Patterson languishing in misery and embarrassment after a loss to Sonny Liston, a melancholy portrait reflecting his habit of empathy for the defeated. 

The pieces are collected from over thirty years and so a theme is hard to pin down. What does appear in several is fragile or damaged masculinity. Most evident in Patterson hiding out after a loss it appears elsewhere; Joe Louis is shown in middle age, his prime years before, Frank Sinatra’s talent, his voice, is shaken by illness and this throws him off. Similarly in an article from the ’90s we see two enemies of the American establishment in the ’60s, Muhammad Ali and Fidel Castro, meet as ageing men both with poor health. 

Sinatra demands to be in charge, is shown to be a man who hates disrespect and being made to look foolish. Patterson has a fake beard in his dressing room so he can sneak out should he lose. Talese homes in on these insecurities, on male proud it’s even in the story he tells of his father where a wily tailor tricks a mafioso using the man’s vanity and fear of looking stupid to win the day. 

While many pieces feature famous faces there are other examples where Talese turns his focus on less well known subjects. He writes about the offices of Vogue in a wry piece where he steals the language of the magazine to describe it’s workers. There is an article about the dedicated, grim work of an obituary writer at a major newspaper as well as personal essays about his father in Italy or how he became a writer.

Despite the time he wrote in Talese seems liberal and even handed. His portraits of black boxers avoids racist stereotyping or condescension, which can mar other articles from this era. The one misstep is that during the Sinatra piece he refers to Ali by his former name Clay, which many sportswriters were guilty of, but it’s hard to see any malice here, perhaps ignorance or the insistence of an editor?

Talese’s writing and the empathy, insight and understanding that resonates through it show that he was a student and lover of human nature, and a keen observer. Each portrait is engrossing and detailed, providing a real sense of all who feature.

A great read and I shall be checking out more of his writing in future.

Verdict: A talented nonfiction writer Talese produces essays which are involving and insightful. He captures the small, quiet moments that reveal the bigger characters and deeper stories. A delight. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO. 

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