Wow. Sports Illustrated has just published an excerpt of Game of Shadows by SF Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams that lays out what can only be described as incontrovertible evidence that Barry Bonds has been a rampant steroid user for the last several years. This is going to rock the baseball world, and I hope it really does shake things up – I’d love to see the game get back to the way it was before wierdly beefy guys started launching home runs night after night. This is big book news too. I got a breathless “news alert” from a publicist pointing to the impact the SI excerpt is having on the book’s sales. As of this writing, yesterday’s Amazon rank for the book was 119,745 and now it’s up to 75, and climbing I’d assume. So here’s to a clean, non-chemically enhanced baseball season. Can we make it happen this year, please?
If One Story Collected is a stethoscope to the heart of contemporary American fiction, the news is good: despite a run of economic shocks to the publishing industry, the muscle that pumps fresh blood into the system is still beating like a tom-tom.
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Memory has always been tricky; now that machines remember for us, it’s only gotten trickier. Google has already become Borges’ Fuñes, condemned to remember everything and, hence, unable to determine what’s actually worth saving. Kafka: “I can swim just like the others. Only I have a better memory than the others. I have not forgotten the former inability to swim. But since I have not forgotten it, being able to swim is of no help to me; and so, after all, I cannot swim.” This is the situation we find ourselves in; when memory has been reduced to a science, the only appropriate response is to reclaim it by art. Increasingly, the novels I cherish most are those that offer tools for navigating the changing landscape of memory -- thus my good fortune to have stumbled upon the Australian novelist Brian Castro. I first heard of Castro’s Shanghai Dancing while at a conference in Sydney in 2003, where a panelist mentioned in the same breath as the German novelist W. G. Sebald. Intrigued, I bought a copy for the plane ride home, and Castro’s book took me immediately, gathered me up like few others. “Winter had descended on Shanghai,” it began. “There was no real hope of finding tomatoes. You went looking anyway. It was a cure of sorts. No, not the tomatoes, but the search.” I read nearly the entire 400-page book on that flight, enthralled and entranced, my concentration broken only by the flight attendant who kept hitting on the two girls next to me (which wasn’t all bad; he snuck them the first-class dessert, which they in turn gave to me). When I got home, I went straight to the only publisher I knew, and pressed the book into her hands and told her she needed to buy the American rights. Luckily, she did. Castro’s obscurity in the States is a little hard to fathom. Like David Mitchell, Castro plumbs the histories of decaying empires, trawling the Eastern coasts of the Pacific Ocean, and intertwines them with vertiginous family dramas with the sensitivity and eloquence of Marilynne Robinson. Like Ondaatje, he approaches the ruin and calamities of the past without hand-wringing moralizing, instead tracing the echoes of these disasters on marginal figures otherwise forgotten. He’s won almost every literary prize Australia has to offer (short of the Booker), and at one point during the summer of 2011 the bookmaker Victor Chandler had 33:1 odds that he’d win the Nobel Prize (a long shot, to be sure, but better than the odds for A. S. Byatt or Ian McEwan). Put simply, Shanghai Dancing is the best contemporary book in English that most Americans have never heard of. Castro’s “fictional autobiography” follows Antonio Castro (whose biography shares much with Castro the author) --forced to leave Shanghai as a child, he returns 40 years later seeking an inheritance consisting both of money and stories. Gradually, the latter will become more important, as Antonio’s investigation unearths stories of failed business enterprises and embezzlements, the atrocities of Japan’s occupation of Shanghai during the 1930’s, affairs and mistresses and illegitimate children, and even the Spanish Inquisition: Sometimes you suffocate when you think of the past; of a life that never was, flashing up in sepia. Memory which is creamy-yellow, cracked; composed of protogallic acid, protosulphate of iron, potassium cyanide. Let’s not get too technical. Not right now. It makes for too much exposure. Still, in the dark, you remember that in Shanghai they used to wrap tomatoes in tissue paper. Like this story. Like the way everything in history is wrapped in a tissue; of words, of memories, of lies. Castro’s solution to a surfeit of lies and contradictions, of “official histories” and other modes of obliteration is a mélange of voices, of tones that range from the literary to the technical to the groan-inducing pun -- a light touch amidst what might otherwise bear down its reader. Fragmentary and sprawling, Shanghai Dancing never loses its focus -- or rather, it encourages the reader to see its focus in terms of the fragmentary and the incomplete. The “Shanghai Dancing” of the title is given a dozen different slang definitions, from “a rite of passage” to syphilis, but ultimately it becomes the mode by which Castro’s novel engages with history and family memories -- a narration that never settles into one voice, and which never settles for the accepted answers. And then there are the photographs. In the wake of Sebald’s death, there have been dozens of novels that have attempted his approach of incorporating photography alongside prose, and less successful imitators have shown that one can’t simply slather photographs onto the page and expect profundity. Castro’s use of photography, like Sebald’s, plays on the inherently unstable relationship between text and image, and forces open the gaps between them to add more layers onto the novel. At one point, Castro gives us a straightforward group portrait of Antonio’s father’s jazz band from 1926: six men in tuxedos, their instruments neatly arranged in front of them. The image is staged in such a way as to lack any ambiguity; the caption that accompanies it, however, undercuts this entirely: The Venus Café, New Year’s Eye, 1926. My father the band leader is seated. His best friend Lobo Ling stands beside him. Later they are going to kiss the girls in turn and watch the future unfurl with fireworks and bullets and take their trousers to the laundry in the morning past a line of bodies in the gutters, each shot in the back through their sleeveless pullovers. Even with an evocation of such violence, Castro’s project is not to castigate or instruct us in politically correct history, so much as to complicate the relationship between family history and national history, the two infecting one another.
Mohsin Hamid’s new novel How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is loosely structured as a self-help book. Although, as the writer notes at the outset, “the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one.” Self-help books, he writes, “are an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author.” The book follows the trajectory of a self-made man somewhere in “rising Asia,” from very poor small boy in the provinces to extremely rich old man in an unnamed metropolis. Chapter headings include Get an Education, Don’t Fall in Love, Avoid Idealists, Befriend a Bureaucrat, Be Prepared To Use Violence. Each chapter begins with a few words on these themes, often interesting and insightful — “No self-help book can be complete,” Hamid writes, at the outset of Befriend a Bureaucrat, without taking into our account our relationship with the state. For if there were a cosmic list of things that unite us, reader and writer, visible as it scrolled up and into the distance, like the introduction to some epic science-fiction film, then shining brightly on that list would be the fact that we exist in a financial universe that is subject to massive gravitational pulls from states. The opening remarks complete, Hamid dives into the specifics of the man’s story. Hamid’s characters, country, and city are unnamed in this book. The writing is often beautiful, and Hamid's political commentary remains razor-sharp. In his brilliant previous novel, Moth Smoke, he addressed the problem of economic inequality head-on, and he doesn’t shy away from it here. His protagonist’s path to filthy richness involves selling drinking water. A prospective client pitches him on a planned development where residents will actually be able to drink the water that comes out of the tap: it’ll be “[l]ike you’ve gone to Europe,” he says. “Or North America.” “Without leaving home,” your brother-in-law says. “Exactly. Without leaving home. You’ll still be here. But in a secure, walled-off, impeccably maintained, lit-up-at-night, noise-controlled, perfectly regulated version of here.” But where is here, exactly, in a book without names? Based on Hamid’s previous work, my best guess is Pakistan. There's a certain tension here between the general and the specific: my suspicion is that getting filthy rich in rising Pakistan is probably a somewhat different experience than, say, getting filthy rich in rising China. It's not at all clear to me that the story is well-served by Hamid's vagueness. The protagonist is rendered in the second person, which proves an elegant method of sidestepping the fact that he doesn’t have a name, and also has the interesting effect of turning him into a sort of avatar for the reader. The reader is addressed as “you” in the opening remarks of each chapter, and then a more specific you, the man who was born in the provinces and has come to the unnamed metropolis to make his fortune, sets out in his car and drives to the office, or takes a meeting with a bureaucrat, or sits down to dinner with his son. He is distracted now and then by thoughts of his lifelong object of desire, a woman referred to throughout only as “the pretty girl.” But this is a book that follows its characters over the course of their lives, so while referring to her as “the pretty girl” works well enough when she’s a scrappy teenager in a rough neighborhood, the moniker becomes a little jarring by the time “the pretty girl” is a successful businesswoman in middle age. As the book progresses, the structure to which Hamid has committed himself begins to seem increasingly cumbersome. The problem, of course, is that while the self-help format is somewhat general by nature, novels tend to be stories about specific people, specific situations and lives, and Hamid's latest is no exception. He might be addressing a general "you" at the beginning of each chapter, but he’s still writing about a particular life, with its particular triumphs, sorrows, and complications. That life is often beautifully rendered, because Hamid is one of the best writers working today. If Hamid has committed himself to a structure that works to the book’s detriment, that detriment isn’t fatal. How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is filled with flashes of brilliance, deeply moving passages, and the beautifully clear prose style that I’ve admired so greatly in Hamid’s previous works.
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In late April, right before the NBA playoffs began, I interviewed Esquire's Scott Raab about The Whore of Akron, his passionate, eloquent, achingly human memoir on being a Cleveland sports fan and his evolving hatred for basketball superstar LeBron James, who publicly rejected Raab's beloved Cavaliers to sign with the Miami Heat in 2010. Since the Heat were in the playoffs, and The Whore of Akron had just been released in paperback, the timing of this interview seemed perfect. Then life got in the way. My wife and I moved, necessitating an endless amount of catch-up. I parted ways with the original destination for this piece. On and on. As barriers arose, the Heat made their way through the Eastern Conference playoffs. In late June, they beat the Oklahoma City Thunder to win the NBA championship. Kings James finally had his crown plus the Finals MVP award. Little else has changed in the Midwest. Cleveland still hasn't fielded a championship team since 1964. LeBron is still, to use Raab's language, a "megalomaniacal shitheel." The vitriol endures the 24/7 news cycle. Also, The Whore of Akron embodies the paradox of sports that Chuck Klosterman perfectly described in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: The best part about loving sports is hating them. If you follow the Mets, despising the Yankees is a requirement. Rooting for the Patriots means forever cursing Mario Manningham's nimble feet and David Tyree's Velcro grip. And, if you love the Cavaliers, you want LeBron James -- an otherworldly talent who has added to the continuing Greek tragedy that is Cleveland's sports scene -- to suffer. Forever. "You ask what are my feelings toward LeBron winning his first title? Dismay. Disgust. I do want to give him proper credit for stepping up and getting it done," Raab said after the deciding game. "I think any sports fan looks at an athlete doing what he did, especially in the Finals, and I give him full credit for that -- though it pains me to do so. But the feelings are not unlike seeing the Baltimore Ravens winning a Super Bowl not so many seasons after they were stolen from Cleveland. It makes me want to puke. As far his legacy, I'm not the right guy to ask. His legacy, as far as I'm concerned, will always be as a backstabbing shitheel who made the wrong decision. I fully believe the Cavaliers would have won at least one title with him, and that would have created the sort of legacy he'll never earn no matter how many titles he wins." In this interview, conducted April 25th over the phone and condensed for clarity and space, Raab talks about book writing (and promotion), LeBron James (naturally), the limits of traditional sports reporting, and why Cleveland sports fans should not make losing part of their identity. The interview picks up after Raab and I exchange pleasantries. Scott Raab: I don't even think [HarperCollins] bothered to tweet that there's a paperback out, and the playoffs start Monday. Pete Croatto: That seems like a gross oversight on their part. SR: Well I was forewarned -- and it had nothing to do with HarperCollins in particular -- by people who have published multiple books, some of whom have done real well with certain books, that the way publishing works traditionally is they put out a lot of books, and if lightning should strike a book then they'll put money into the book. I couldn't figure out for the life of me why HarperCollins, when they published a hardback and it was reviewed by everyone from The Christian Science Monitor and Parade magazine to Sports Illustrated and The Wall Street Journal, [how] I never managed to get on a single TV show, for example. It's a basketball star and it's an odd book, I get that part, but it's also the most polarizing athlete, certainly one of the most polarizing humans, in the country. PC: Is part of that because the book is so emotionally raw that maybe HarperCollins doesn’t want to go all in on it? SR: I don't know the answer and I don't know if I'll be able to find out the answer because one of the things that came up first was title suggestions. I had been using "The Whore of Akron" as a hashtag for a long time. Naturally, I assumed that a big publisher [would] rely on places like Costco and Wal-Mart to sell a lot of books [so] I didn't even suggest The Whore of Akron as a title. My editors, to their eternal credit, by the way -- I love the title, I'm proud of the title, I wouldn't change it for the world -- but their editors convinced the sales people to go with the title The Whore of Akron knowing that Costco and Wal-Mart were not going to have stacks of a book with that word in big block caps on the cover piled up in the aisles so they could get angry letters from shoppers going, "I was there with my eight year old." I thought by being committed to the title it meant that they would also be committed to putting out more money and a little more effort on behalf of getting publicity and that kind of thing, but it didn't happen that way...That also leaves open the question that you asked, as I understand it, which is that the content itself is peculiar and angry and is kind of vulgar and weird and all that stuff. Whether it ever got to that level where the content affected people's willingness, I don't know. I'm not sure how many people were aware the book even exists, which is what I'm saying, let alone put off by the content. PC: I feel that saying it's a great book -- which it is -- and that you got it published, is cold comfort. SR: I'm fine with it...It got a lot of nice reviews, a lot of people really liked the book, a lot of people reached out to me -- not just Clevelanders -- because in some ways it's a barely disguised 12-step memoir or something like that. I don't know how many copies it sold. If it had tanked completely, there's no way HarperCollins would have even bothered to publish a paperback. PC: In some way is just having the book out, and even writing that book, as a Cleveland fan, as a man who's had his fair share of obstacles, a form of catharsis? Is that the best thing? SR: On some level I think that's true and yet I still watch the Miami Heat obsessively. I still root for LeBron James to fail with the same kind of passion. I still focus on Cleveland teams the same way. My weight -- I'm way down from where I peaked in the book -- but I'm still a 300-pound guy. There is nothing about the catharsis that was waving a magic wand and changing my life. I have a wonderful life. I slept over at Bill Murray's house last weekend as part of my Esquire job. I have one of the only great jobs in print journalism left. So, I don’t want to start making it sound like, "Yeah, I wrote the book and it was cathartic and I'm still the same..." I think the book is kind of funny. I don’t know that the book is full of self-pity. I certainly hope not. PC: No, it's not. But when you're watching Game 6 of the Finals and you're seeing Dirk Nowitzki making his move and you're coming to terms with LeBron's immaturity, there's a sense of letting go, of there being relief. SR: Yes, yes and I thought there would be more of that. I thought I would feel more of that. I thought when this season rolled around that either I'd be much more indifferent to or much less passionate about LeBron and about LeBron's team and all that. I knew I was going to run into difficulty getting ESPN to pay any attention, because despite the fact that I do have connections there with people who I respect and of whom I'm very fond, I'm very hard on ESPN in the book. PC: Yes, you are. SR: They essentially boycotted the book. Where Sports Illustrated reviewed it and has mentioned it three or four times, ESPN has basically ignored the book completely and has engendered a great deal of bitterness on my part. The fact that they have the Heat Index, where they have 18 writers or 37 writers covering every aspect of LeBron's existence, but a book like this comes out and never gets a mention on ESPN or ESPN: The Magazine. So that helped fuel my animus. My rage was kept fresh by the Worldwide Leader. PC: At one point Will Leitch, the founding editor of Deadspin, was banned by ESPN and he considered that a badge of honor. SR: I'm going to be 60 this summer. I've got a 12-year-old son. I can't complain that I'm not able to make my mortgage. There's none of that, but I was hoping, given the fact that I think it's a good book and LeBron is really that polarizing a figure, that the book was going to do great commercially. I'm not sure Will necessarily has the same set of factors at play. But you know what? It's one those cases, as much as I hate the phrase it is, what it is -- it is, what it is. PC: You're still watching the Heat? I find that amazing. SR: Yes. I have League Pass and I probably watch more Heat games than Cavalier games, especially once Kyrie Irving got hurt. PC: Do you watch the whole Heat game? Do you go back and forth? I'm fascinated by this. SR: [Laughs] I don't watch it the way I watched it last year, where it really was the whole game. I check in to see how they're looking. There are times against weaker teams, or a team that shoots poorly, where the Heat can get out into transition and I can't take a whole game of that because they're just too overpowering an offense when they can operate in the open court. PC: Do you know if James has read the book, if he's aware of the book? SR: I'm certain he's aware. I dropped a copy off at his house. I dropped a copy off at his business office in Cleveland. I autographed both copies: one for LeBron and one for Maverick Carter [James's friend and manager]. I put a bounty on the Miami beat writers, offered $100 bucks to anyone who would ask him about the book -- of course, no one would. But I'm quite sure he's aware of the book. PC: Walking into the lion's den like that, how did you feel? SR: I'm good with that. If I could get a conversation with LeBron it wouldn't start with me calling him a whore...It's not a persona that I hate LeBron, if you want to use the word "hate," that's the truth. I'm a professional at this point. I've been writing for national magazines for 25 years. My mother would worry. My mother genuinely would say, "Have you heard from LeBron's people." I don't know what she means by "his people" but, no, I haven't heard from anyone. She worries, "They're going to hurt you." No, but that that would be good for the book if it did [happen]. I don't think you or anyone else in this kind of conversation would feel a tremendous amount of trepidation or anything. This is kind of fun. I had a great time doing the book, and when we went to Bath, Ohio, to drop the book off at his house, the only thing I was nervous about was what if we actually rang the bell and were the least bit of intrusive that we would wind up being charged with something by an officer of the law. I didn't want to get in that kind of situation. PC: Writing this book, getting as personal as you did, was it a nerve-wracking experience? SR: I didn't know where the book was going to go. For a long time I thought I would be collecting a lot of interviews with a lot of Cleveland fans and including a lot of that in the book. There are still one or two examples of that. What happened in the writing of it, once the Finals ended and I had a deadline to meet, I also had a lot of people -- because the Heat had lost and I had been tweeting and blogging occasionally for Esquire -- not just calling me names but going, "How could you be this full of hate for a young athlete? How could you wish injury?" Or, "Get a life." Or, "Kill yourself, you miserable fat fuck." Not that I take any of that too much to heart, but the question really began to intrigue me about what made me this kind of fan. What made me so attached? Because I wasn’t sure of the answer; it was just always part of my life to be this champion of Cleveland or die-hard Cleveland fan. I write a lot of first-person stuff anyway, even when people complain about those Q&As -- and people do complain -- they go, "If I wanted to read about you, Scott Raab, I'd buy Scott Raab Magazine. I'm more interested in what so-and-so has to say." PC: Yeah, but I disagree with that, and that's why I like your interviews. So many in magazines and television are so canned. A robot might as well be asking the questions. There's nothing wrong with someone putting themselves on the page. SR: Obviously, I agree and God bless you. If I had to do those kinds of interviews, Esquire wouldn’t even bother to run them...I know that when I'm going on a Q&A, I still get really nervous. I still prepare for it. I interviewed Sarah Silverman on Monday. I love her and I really love her stuff. I read 105 pages from a clip file and I read her book [The Bedwetter] -- we had the same editor at HarperCollins. I saw the movie, Take This Waltz. In other words, I did a lot of homework. I was very nervous. There's a shower scene, nothing lascivious but just women taking a shower together and she's one of the women. [I started by saying] "I saw the movie, so I brought a picture of myself naked so we would be even." Now, that was just an icebreaker, but it's definitely going to be part of the Q&A. I think that kind of stuff is fun, and if I think it's fun...The same with the book, by the way. I had to talk with my wife at length about some of the stuff just to make sure that she was okay with it. I felt however grandiose this sounds, if that was the direction I was going to go in, there wasn't going to be much I was going to withhold about my life. PC: Was she comfortable with that? SR: I don't think she was comfortable with it. I don't think she is comfortable with it. We go to parties or to dinners in our neighborhood, which is a small suburb in New Jersey, and I think both Lisa and I are real self-conscious about it. But she wasn't uncomfortable enough with it to go, "I don't want you to do that." PC: She's a journalist, correct? SR: She's a journalist and she also understands that the book turned out to be really important to me personally. And maybe that speaks to the catharsis question. She saw not that I did a lot of traveling and was away from home far more than I wanted to be, but that I had to step back into being a fan, that I had kind of cut myself off just to save myself the wear and tear. I became a Cleveland fan who would Google and get clips of like the Browns final home game on YouTube and I would sit there crying. She understood that this was something that wasn't a commercial exercise for me, but it was as much a part of me as anything in my life -- with the possible exception of her and my son. PC: Are you ever going to stop being the passionate fan that you are? Do you see yourself mellowing with age? SR: It's hard to imagine just because it has not happened. I think if I had stayed in Cleveland I don’t know what would have become of me professionally because a writer really can't make a living in Cleveland. I don't know what would have happened to me as a fan, because the suffering that they've gone through has been so embittering. Because I haven't gone through it as a Clevelander living in Cleveland, I don't want to exaggerate my own suffering. I know the Browns are drafting Thursday night. I just haven't seen any way in which I've mellowed, including there are a couple of memorial plaques at one of the Little League fields where my son plays. And I made a joke about how it's odd that people chose to be buried there. Not that there are actually people buried, just the memorial plaques look like headstones. And what I was thinking was, "That's how my mind worked." I'd want to be laid to rest somewhere my son could visit my remains, but I would also like to be interred somewhere near one of the ballparks in Cleveland. PC: Really? SR: Well, yeah, because I don’t know what else would define me more precisely than my love for those teams. It's just the truth. PC: How do you deal with the overall ineptitude of the Cleveland teams? It's almost an epic suffering. SR: On one level, I just intellectualize it...There's a play called Our Greatest Year, written by a couple of younger guys [Robert Attenweiler and Scott Henkle], about 2007, a year when the Indians were up three games to one on the Red Sox [in the American League Championship Series] and the Cavs were in the Finals against the Spurs and the Browns were in the playoff hunt until the final game of the season. For these guys, that was our greatest year. And it's a very funny, very well-crafted Cleveland play. There's a point raised by one of the characters in the play about how attached the main character is to losing, and how you come to define fandom in that way as a Clevelander, and that maybe if one of those teams ever did win a championship it would be sad and it would take something away from our sense of ourselves that's unique because we suffer uniquely, this unique fan base. I think that's bullshit, but I can go there. I can have that discussion. One of the reasons that I feel comfortable going there and having the discussion is because the other really is painful. When I see on YouTube the Miracle of Richfield, which was simply the Cavs beating the Bullets in a seventh game of a playoff series in 1975-76. When I see those fans pouring out of the stands and tearing down a basket at an NBA game, and I think how many of those fans are dead now, and how many of them like me are thinking about when is Medicare going to kick in. I start crying. I don’t start crying in the metaphorical sense or the intellectual sense: I start crying. The same with the Browns final home game, where a bunch of the players after time runs out, they run down [voice starts to crack] to the bleachers. [silence] Sorry, Pete, I have to gather myself here. [silence] I really think the takeaway here is that I haven't mellowed. [silence] I don't know what else to say on the subject, except I much rather have the intellectual conversation than live full-time in the emotion of it. [silence] If one of those teams were to actually win a championship [voice breaks] I think it would be an unmitigated joy. [silence] I can't imagine any Cleveland fan going, "You know, I really liked it better when we could uniquely identify ourselves by our suffering." I can't. That thought is, if not really even perverse, it's just ridiculous. PC: I don't think anyone wants to be branded as a perpetual loser. SR: I think one of the things that people don't understand -- and I don’t think I did a particular solid job in the book, because it would have killed the narrative -- but you cannot separate the team's collective failures -- individually or as one global failure. It just can't be separated from what's happened to the city.
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Reading The Silent Season of a Hero, a new collection of sports writing by the venerable Gay Talese, is a bit like watching time-lapse photography of a rose blooming. In the course of this 308-page book, we see a raw teenage sportswriter become a college columnist with obvious talent, then a polished reporter for a daily newspaper, and finally blossoming into a master of the long narrative form once favored by our best magazines. It's thrilling to witness this process of maturation. Much of the credit goes to Michael Rosenwald, a staff writer at the Washington Post who selected the book's 39 pieces and wrote short, illuminating essays that introduce each of its five sections. He sometimes quotes Talese to great effect. For instance, in praising Talese's skill as a reporter, Rosenwald writes: "The ability to make people comfortable enough to reveal things they have never told their wives or mistresses is one of the unseen strengths of Talese's career." To which Talese adds, "What I think is important and what influences people to let me in the door, it's because my manner is courteous. I want to hear about their lives. I want to listen." In the case of the rough-edged entourage that surrounded the boxer Floyd Patterson, Talese says, "There's a sadness about them and when someone would talk to them decently, as I did, they sort of opened up to me." Tom Wolfe famously touted Talese's 1962 Esquire magazine article on Joe Louis in retirement as the piece of writing that spawned The New Journalism. Talese isn't having it. As he explains in this book's introduction, he had spent years prior to 1962 trying to figure out ways to use the devices of fiction – "scene-setting, dialogue, drama, conflict" – in non-fiction. He cites such specific early influences as the short stories of Hemingway and John O'Hara, "Winter Dreams" by Fitzgerald, "The Jockey" by Carson McCullers and "The Eighty-Yard Run" by Irwin Shaw. By the time he graduated from his Ocean City, N.J., high school newspaper and hometown weekly to the undergrad newspaper at the University of Alabama, he was also emulating the sports columnists Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon and Dan Parker. It was at the New York Times from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s that Talese's unique penchants and gifts began to pay off. He is, in essence, an old-school reporter – but with a critical difference. He does the legwork, he has a sharp eye for the telling detail, he gets people to open up and then he writes down what they say – but along the way he also mastered what he calls "the art of hanging out." The art of becoming part of his subject's world. Of absorbing things until he has absorbed the essence of the story he needs to tell. The stories written for the Times often revolved around the sporting world's invisible people, boxing referees, timekeepers, horseshoe makers, bare-knuckle fighters, agents, midget wrestlers. As good as these stories are – quirky, sharply observed, beautifully written – they're warm-ups for the main event. One of my favorite elements in the book is photocopies of six dense pages of notes Talese typed while getting ready to write about the New York Yankees' final road trip in their disastrous 1979 season. Fragmentary, riddled with typos, sometimes nearly incoherent, these six pages nonetheless open a window into Talese's creative process – how he sketches scenes, pulls together scraps of dialogue, lays out the ethnic and regional and class differences between the ballplayers and the sportswriters, even the music coming out of the players' ubiquitous radios. It's a string of buzzy, electric riffs, like an athlete getting pumped up in the locker room before taking the field. It's fascinating. Two crucial aspects of Talese's temperament are also revealed in this book: he is indifferent to the results of contests – to news – but he is fascinated by how those results affect the contestants. Especially when they lose. Floyd Patterson could have been speaking for Talese when he said this about the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston: "We'll find out what he's like after somebody beats him, how he takes it. It's easy to do anything in victory. It's in defeat that a man reveals himself." (For an answer to Patterson's musings, I refer you to Nick Tosches's superb impressionistic little book The Devil and Sonny Liston.) Even more fascinating to Talese than failure is the murky downslope of greatness, the twilight of storied careers, the ways stars must struggle to get their bearings after the cheering stops. This fascination led to Talese's classic Esquire articles from the 1960s about Patterson ("The Loser"), Joe Louis ("The King as a Middle-Aged Man") and Joe DiMaggio ("The Silent Season of a Hero"). Eventually the cheering faded for Talese, too. When he was in his mid-sixties, half a dozen magazines turned down his brilliant article about Muhammad Ali meeting Fidel Castro in Havana, which is included here and which Talese regards as his finest piece of work. Eventually Esquire buried it at the back of its September 1996 issue. Talese, now pushing 80, is still working. He published a memoir, A Writer's Life, in 2007. He has new books in the works. As for being inventor of The New Journalism, Talese says, "I have always thought of myself as rather traditional in my approach, and not so 'new.' I never wanted to do something new. I wanted to do something that would hold up over time, something that could get old and still have the same resonance." As this book demonstrates, that is precisely what he has done.