About six decades ago Gay Talese began his writing career with clear intentions. "There were so many fine fiction writers, it seemed to me," he says in the introduction to The Silent Season of a Hero, a newly published collection of his sportswriting, "and not enough nonfiction writers who had mastered the art of storytelling, and so it was my goal to become one of these."
Talese, 78, used as his template the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Irwin Shaw, and he refused to be bound by the seemingly inviolable tenets of the reporter's trade. He relied on nuance and experimented with form—in a 1958 story, "Portrait of a Young Prizefighter," the name of the boxer (future light heavyweight champion Jose Torres) does not appear until the final paragraph—and the essence of the story was often in what he implied rather than what he explicitly wrote. In this way Talese was among the writers who transformed the notions of what journalism could be.
Silent Season, edited by The Washington Post's Michael Rosenwald, reaches back to pieces written in the late 1940s for a New Jersey weekly, the Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger and in the '50s and '60s for The New York Times. Talese visits with a horseshoe maker, with a troupe of midget wrestlers and with the last of the bare-knuckle fighters, who, at age 93 "still is a noisy, ruddy, spry 122-pounder." He wrote often about boxers (Ali, Patterson, Louis), and the book has as its namesake his 1966 Esquire portrait of Joe DiMaggio at age 51. "His expression, once sad and haunted as a matador's, was more in repose these days," Talese wrote. It is one of the rare magazine stories that endures as literature.
Talese has a large, wide-ranging body of work—another classic Esquire story, "Frank Sinatra has a Cold," and his entrancing 1993 memoir, Unto the Sons, stand out—and his powers are on full display in his sportswriting, the genre in which he began.