Gay Talese in the New Yorker


week’s issue of the New Yorker is an excellent reminder of why it is

the best magazine in the world. Who else would commission the great Michael

Sowa to do a Thanksgiving cover illustration? (Talking of the cover, I have

a rare early-print-run copy of the magazine which is missing the "The"

in "The New Yorker" on the cover. Make me an offer and buy this collectible

now, while you have the opportunity!)

Anyway, where but the New Yorker would this

wonderful piece by Gay Talese ever appear?

Talese has revisited the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the most elegant suspension

bridge in New York, 40-odd years after it was built. He covered the original

construction of the bridge, and now, in his trademark style, has gone back to

find the same people he talked to back then. Not all are still alive, of course,

but one of them was still working on the bridge as recently as 1991. Here’s

Talese, with his limpid prose style:

Despite his advanced age and his occupational ailments, Edward Iannielli

had drawn one of the most difficult assignments on the renovation project—that

of removing rust from the highest points of the towers… After arriving at

the top of the tower—a journey that took twenty minutes—he leaned

out into the sky and went to work with wire brushes and scrapers to remove

rust, and then, wearing rubber gloves, to smear a rust-resistant paste onto

whatever corrosion existed along the flat surface and bolts of the tower.

As he did this, he envisaged himself thirty years earlier, inserting these

same bolts into the same steel, and once more he felt a sense of identity

with the great structure. Tears came to his eyes, and, dipping his gloved

left hand into a bucket of reddish paste, he reached out to touch an untarnished

plate of steel which was secured by a row of bolts and, with his bent middle

finger, he wrote as clearly as he could, in block letters, "Catherine"—the

name of his wife of thirty years, who had recently died of cancer.

"Leaned out into the sky" – I love that. And Talese’s a master

of the comma: there are eight in that last sentence, but he uses an em-dash

where 95% of people would use a comma. Most powerfully, there isn’t a comma

or any punctuation at all after "bolts", where the big break in the

sentence occurs. It might be reading "bolts and braces" but in fact

it’s "bolts and now I’m on to something completely different". I’ve

noticed this in a lot of writers, especially Updike; I don’t know whether it’s

got a name. But I’m sure, again, that the vast majority of people would simply

end the sentence at "bolts" and then begin a new one.

There’s no real story to Talese’s piece: it’s episodic, moving from character

to character, stopping along the way to remember how things were 40 years ago,

and to compare how things are today. The attack on the World Trade Center features

prominently, of course, this time viewed from a fresh perspective – that

of the people who worked on its construction. (Naturally enough, there was a

large overlap between the Verrazano-Narrows workers and those who built the

twin towers.)

At one point the towers are described as "ninety-five per cent air".

In that one phrase is encapsulated a whole world of difference – between

the old world and the new, and between the blue-collar world and the white-collar

world. Skyscrapers which predate the World Trade Center are big, solid buildings

– think the Empire State. And people like Edward Iannielli, who worked

on 50-odd skyscrapers in and around New York, like them that way. But things

are different now: property developers want buildings to be as airy as possible,

since that makes them more desirable to tenants and maximises rentable floor

space. Even classicist architects, who might put columns or stone cladding on

a new building rather than the standard modernist curtain wall, will still use

modern construction techniques to keep the inside as column-free and airy as


I think (and this is only a hunch) that people like – and classicist

architects use – columns and their ilk in contemporary architecture precisely

because they give the impression of support and solidity, even when they’re

purely decorative. While the architectural world continues to use state-of-the-art

technology to create bigger and bigger open spaces, a lot of people still like

to feel that they can see the way in which their building is being

held up. In the World Trade Center, they couldn’t: the interior columns were

thrust out to the walls, and read to the eye simply as window-frames. What modernists

considered genius made the likes of Iannielli very uncomfortable. But the modernists

have won this war, and "flimsy", to use his word, is here to stay.

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One Response to Gay Talese in the New Yorker

  1. Rob Kohlmeier says:

    This is an interesting gloss on great piece of writing, but I feel that you err when you state, in the paragraph that follows the block quotation, that a natural break occurs in the sentence after the word “bolts.” It doesn’t, any more than a natural break occurs after the word “sky” in “he leaned out into the sky and went to work.” In the “bolts” sentence, too, Talese wants us to feel the continuity of action in the reaching out to the steel plate to the writing of the name. One way he does this is to omit the comma after “bolts.”

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