Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Pat Jordan and Gay Talese

If you read sports blogs or sports columns long enough, eventually someone will mention Pat Jordan. Usually, his name is accompanied by the name of his memoir, A False Spring, or by the words "The Garvey article" — the notion being that everyone who cares about sports will recognize these works or the ideas expressed by them immediately. Most people eventually mention Jordan's name in conjunction with the title of greatest living sportswriter, or even greatest ever. They're probably right.

The trouble with collections like The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan is that they usually fail to even approach the level of critical fawning their authors receive. Three factors typically explain this.

1. The authors indeed were exceptional twenty, thirty or forty years ago. However, in the intervening years, standards have changed such that their writing sounds dated or their technique toothless. Quite often, someone venerated as the first to do something is no longer remotely the best at doing it. Just imagine reading the best magazine interview of the 1930s and then reading the best magazine interview of the 1980s, after decades of Playboy interviews and Studs Turkel books, after an increase in the public's awareness of what spin and personal managers do to discourse and an intolerance of the same. It would be unbearable, wouldn't it?

2. Sportswriters are conservative beasts who tend to lag at least a decade behind the writing standards of every other part of the paper. They also can be insular, exclusive, jeering, petty and incredibly territorial. Because of this, they sometimes celebrate things less because those things are incontravertibly great and more so because everyone has said that this thing is great. ("Who are we to challenge the received wisdom and tired old saws of our fellow writers? The moment we do that, then it's open season on us when fans start wondering why we're getting paid to be on TV to say that David Eckstein is scrappy and that Derek Jeter is the Yankee Captain... of intangibles. Retesting hypotheses is suicide!") Sometimes one gets the sense that at least a third of the nation's sportswriters eat a tablespoon of borax, do 50 Iroquois Twists in front of the mirror and eat a light lunch of 1.5 pounds of sirloin every day because in 1938 W.C. Heinz once said to Red Smith that that those were the keys to long life and sexual virility, and Red Smith agreed.

3. Most sportswriters don't want to admit this, but probably half of the criteria used in determining what they consider great writing relates to the subject of the writing. For a lot of writers, the reason Gay Talese's profile of Joe DiMaggio is considered legendary is probably because it's about Joe DiMaggio, a guy they grew up idolizing as children and then as teenagers for his ability to drive a high hard one into centerfield and, later, into Marilyn Monroe. Take an identical level of access, insight, craft and artistry and devote it to Phil Rizzuto, and nobody would give a damn, because nobody except hardline Old Timey Ball-Gayme People or Yankee nutcases gives a damn about Phil Rizzuto to begin with. Except maybe the people who ran The Money Store.

Thankfully, the acclaim Jordan's work receives owes nothing to the above three conditions. Four-decade-old profiles of Tom Seaver possess a resonance easily applicable to the present day. A profile of Steve and Cyndy Garvey still crackles with electricity and tension.

The only potential drawback to the book is what first appears to be an absence of pity. O.J. Simpson's tin laugh litters each paragraph multiple times, punctuating a sad thought train to nowhere. Venus and Serena Williams' repeatedly kissing their father and saying, "I love you, Daddy," counterpoints his relentless need to lie about his and his daughters' accomplishments, a kind of sleazy yang to a saccharine yin. The portrait of the Garvey's vacuous desperation verges on cruelty: Cyndy Garvey awkwardly propositions a person in the story named The Visitor, and the realization that The Visitor is Pat Jordan's name for himself — his attempt to efface his involvement in the story — is nothing short of mortifying.

That last point, however, should rescue the book from readers who would see its reportage as pitiless. The subjects themselves author these uncomfortable and scathing scenes, while Jordan himself recedes into the background almost completely. When he first started writing, editors slapped the New Journalist label on Jordan — much in the same way Tom Wolfe slapped it on Gay Talese — deciding that he was one of these young turks who considered their interaction with and reaction to the story to be as important as the story itself. The label was inapt in both cases. As with Talese, Jordan's self-insertion was coincidental: the subject of his first story was Muhammad Ali, and the act of just getting to speak to Ali told as much about his life as even his most candid confessions could. When Jordan figures in a profile, his presence says something about the environment the subject lives in; and when it wouldn't be illuminating, it isn't there at all.

Once you appreciate Jordan's commitment to anonymity except where instructive, the viciousness of something like the Williams profile disappears entirely. What emerges instead is the realization that Richard Williams damns himself: Jordan isn't commenting but instead faithfully presenting Richard Williams Quote #1 and Richard Williams Quote #2 back to back, letting the man contradict himself, letting him call himself a liar. Similarly, Cindy Garvey dragged Pat Jordan into the profile of the Garveys by touching his hand and propositioning him. While the remainder of the story almost cruelly details the plasticity of their lives, the cruelest comments are their own.

Pat Jordan modeled his writing after Gay Talese's, and the similarities are pleasantly hard to ignore. After finishing Jordan's book, I picked up The Gay Talese Reader again, which I'd read three years ago, and happily reread the iconic Talese stories. "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," the Ur-Profile — the comprehensive look at a person's life via dogged legwork, interviews and wandering around watching him live his life — which everyone else has been writing another version of for over forty years is still as great as everyone says it is. The DiMaggio profile, "The Silent Season of a Hero," seems immediately to be the archetype to which Jordan aspired in terms of format. Both writers exempt themselves from the narrative as much as possible, except where their interactions with the stories' subjects inform the reader most effectively.

Both books have a few misses.

In Talese's case, his early musings ("New York Is a City of Things Unnoticed"), his later musings ("Walking My Cigar") and his memoir-ish reflection ("Origins of a Nonfiction Writer") don't meet the same quality as the rest of the articles. "Unnoticed" appear to have been included mainly because he was fond of the article and not because it offers a truly unique picture of New York or his talents. (So many writers have "early efforts" of which they are fond, despite their evidently being early efforts, and this seems to be one of them.) "Walking My Cigar" — whose thesis is that people tediously moralize more nowadays, even about cigar smoke on public streets — would be rightfully dismissed as a twentysomething complaint had it been offered by a young writer with even half the gravitas. The mini-memoir, meanwhile, reiterates material covered in the introduction and in the subsequent articles, only this time in Talese's words. Perhaps the effects of time have eroded my memory of elements that recommend it, but at the time its insights seemed the least essential, especially in light of its length.

A few of Jordan's entries can drag. Some come off as hopelessly dated, one in particular talking about a game that no longer really exists ("How the Boston Bruins Flaunt Their Muscles") due to changes in the sport and another ("The Italian Prince") about a person few non-Italians would be hard-pressed to even remember and even fewer would be able to describe as relevant to virtually anything.

Still other entries suffer for what they're not; it's hard not to look at what was written and what wasn't written and wonder if maybe Jordan missed the boat. "The Fanciest Diver," a profile of Greg Louganis, practically screams "GAY!" every other page, but Jordan doesn't address the subject of Louganis' sexuality. He later came out of the closet and admitted to an abusive relationship with a male partner, but Jordan appears to have omitted any sexual discussion entirely. I didn't even know about Louganis' homosexuality until after reading the article and heading to Wikipedia, but both the elements of being controlled by others and being gay were so palpable within the text that I guessed accurately before doing my own research.

Similarly, a 2001 profile of seemingly ageless pitcher Roger Clemens ("Roger Clemens Refuses to Grow Up") never broaches the subject of performance-enhancing drugs, though even before The Mitchell Report, the PEDs accusation had been thrown at the over-the-hill fireballer still throwing comfortably in the mid-90s. Still, it's nice to know that, even before the steroids thing came out, a non-Boston fan could spend days with Roger Clemens and come right up to the line of wondering, "Do I explicitly call this person a stunted jackass in the story? Or do I just imply it?" (Jordan implies it, though he goes further in the Q&A section at the end of the book. Clemens, evidently, is cheap.)

Finally, "Thin Mountain Air," a look at the post-baseball life of Steve Carlton stops short of the countless amazing and amusing things it could be. Consider these excerpts, beginning on the first page:
"The house is built with over three hundred yards of concrete," [Carlton] says. "Three-feet-thick walls covered by another three feet of earth." Why? He looks startled, like a huge bird. His small eyes blink once, twice, and then he says, "So the gamma rays won't penetrate the walls."
Then later, just down the second page,
Sometimes all those conspiracies confuse [Carlton] and he contradicts himself. One minute he'll say "The Russian and U.S. governments fill the air with low-frequency sound waves meant to control us," and the next he'll say, "The Elders of Zion rule the world," and then, "The British MI-Five and -Six intelligence agencies have ruled the world since eighteen twelve," and "Twelve Jewish bankers meeting in Switzerland rule the world" and "The world is controlled by a committee of three hundred which meets at a roundtable in Rome." The subterfuge starts early. Like the plot by the National Education Association to subvert American children with false teachings. "Don't tell me that two plus two equals four," he once said. "How do you know that two is two? That's the real question."
The quotes are abolutely amazing. You want Jordan to disappear down the rabbit hole and figure out where Carlton learned all this stuff, who's ultimately responsible, why he believed it, why he thinks it's important, why he doesn't believe anything else. Instead, the profile lingers more in the realm of pity. It's a kind of strange contrast to the acid tone of a profile of normal people like the Garveys, whose only real nasty streak came from being banal and unhappy: here's someone who's hatefully, poisonously ignorant, and Jordan doesn't wring every last bit of it out of him, even for amusement. Come on, this guy had over 4,000 strikeouts: we want to know when, why and how he turned into Ron Paul's representative to Starfleet Command.

Despite their admittedly few shortcomings, both books make excellent additions to any library. Talese is, for all intents and purposes, the Alpha of long-form magazine profile writing. Forty years later, other writers merely modernize and accessorize the template he created and amazingly utilized at a level that, even at its creation, set the bar for everyone else. Meanwhile, Jordan followed in his footsteps and, while he didn't create the sports profile, has for forty years easily equalled Talese's excellence many times over. Little things might separate the authors — for instance, Jordan appears to use far more quotes than Talese, especially when addressing negative aspects — but they otherwise might be the same side of the same journalistic coin. A fan of one should be able to become a fan of the other without the slightest effort. Any fan of journalism in any form, whatever his interest in sports, should read Talese and Jordan, just for love of the craft.

Rating: 4.5
Points off for a few weak contributions in general. Also, readers who don't understand or even fully tolerate the bizarre fetishization of boxers in the sportswriting world will find two long articles in Talese's book tiresome. Likewise, those who consider billiards and poker non-sports will labor through two longish articles in Jordan's book. That said, each one of those profiles can be enjoyed without any interest in the sports or non-sports themselves. Few anthologies are perfect, but both of these manage to get very close.