The 448-page tome is Talese’s first book since 1992. Talese once wrote himself a memo: “More writers should be doing what you’re doing—NOT writing. There’s so much bad writing out there, why add to it?” (Photo copyright © Joyce Tenneson)
“I am not now, nor have I ever been, fond of the game of soccer.” With these McCarthy Era echoes Gay Talese begins his memoir, A Writer’s Life, published last month by Knopf. If one had to choose where Talese, the dapper practitioner of literary journalism and chronicler of popular culture for The New Yorker and Esquire, might begin summarizing his career, the 1999 Women’s World Cup final would seem an unlikely candidate.
But Talese’s narrative picks up the thread from 10 July 1999. We read as Talese gets ready for a tennis match, watches the New York Yankees and muses about his beginnings in sportswriting at the University of Alabama with a column called “Sports Gay-zing.” “I had not planned to watch the match,” he writes, and we might think that he does not intend to write about it either. But, 336 pages later, having taken us on flashbacks to the civil rights movement and his literary treatments of Frank Sinatra, Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and Lorena Bobbitt, among others, Talese resumes with the story of China midfielder Liu Ying.
After 120 minutes of regulation and extra time, the match between the United States and China had come down to penalties. American goalkeeper Briana Scurry‘s save of Liu’s spot kick provided the opening on which Brandi Chastain would capitalize. Talese watched the failure, Liu’s sunken demeanor, and realized, according to Josh Getlin‘s account in the Los Angeles Times, “that was the real story.”
“I thought of myself as a young sportswriter,” Talese tells Getlin, “and how I would have run into that locker room and told the story through her eyes.”
As an alternative, Talese, several months after the World Cup, flew to Beijing. He had no contacts. Time Inc. editor-in-chief Norman Pearlstine had declared no interest in the story, similar to other missteps Talese had in consulting editors who killed his idea for a book on immigrant restaurant workers and, ultimately, the Bobbitt piece. Talese was drawn to “losers,” in the words of his wife, editor Nan Talese, and with Liu Ying he proved dogged. In one of the many memos that Talese writes to himself and posts on the wall of his “writing bunker,” he said that Liu’s “moment of humiliation reached me in ways that were (are) very personal.” The final occurred during a depressive episode for Talese, and he identified with Liu’s heartbreak.
The story of Liu Ying, as outlined in Jere Longman‘s 2000 book, The Girls of Summer: The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team and How It Changed the World, has compelling elements. Liu, whose corner kick earlier in the match easily could have led to a winning goal had Kristine Lilly not cleared the resulting header off the goal line, proved indecisive at the critical moment. In Longman’s account, Scurry notes Liu’s demeanor—her “head was down and her shoulders drooped”—and convinces herself that she will make the save. (No place here to decide whether Scurry’s encroachment on Liu was the key factor. To Liu, it did not matter.)
Longman mentions Liu’s mother, Sun Zhixian, weeping in a China hotel, but Talese takes the drama much further. Liu’s story consumes the last 55 pages of Talese’s book. Getlin writes that “it may have been the biggest reportorial challenge of his life.”
Dressed in his cream-colored Italian suits and sporting a Panama hat, Talese was like Truman Capote in Kansas, a New York boulevardier entering a world suspicious of outsiders.
After months of persistent digging, he finally made contact with the soccer player. She had little to say about the soccer defeat and its impact on her, to his consternation. So he kept digging, until he found his way to her mother. She, quite unexpectedly, gave Talese the human story he wanted.
When Liu Ying missed the kick, her mother said she cried for her pain, and her daughter’s pain. She was embarrassed and didn’t want others to know how she felt. The next morning, a sobbing Liu Ying phoned home, saying, “It’s all my fault” over and over. Strangers came up to her sister on the street, criticizing Ying’s failure.
Liu, 32, has retired from soccer and hopes to become a physical-education teacher. One might smile that Liu and the 74-year-old Talese found each other and perhaps helped lead the other on to rehabilitation, whether rehabilitation was necessary or not.