The Reading Room

Ali in Havana

When Ali met Castro…

gayGay Talese has hit the literary headlines this week for declaring the credibility of his new non-fiction book to be ‘down the toilet’. Known as the ‘Father of American New Journalism’ his latest release ‘The Voyeur’s Motel’ has already had its movie rights bought and excerpts printed in The New Yorker, such is Talese’s reputation. The fact that he has seemingly been semi duped in his research is surprising for a journalist of his undoubted repute.

Having read of this literary bombshell I felt prompted to pick up his classic ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold and Other Essays’ and to reread his remarkable account of Muhammad Ali’s visit to Cuba in 1996 and his subsequent meeting with Fidel Castro. Within the twenty five pages of his account Talese proves not only his worth as a writer but that of the art of the magazine article. It is a worthwhile reminder of the importance of some of the great magazine publications of the twentieth century and those contributing writers. An essayist must condense their story to capture and then captivate the reader and few, if any, do it better than Gay Telese.

With Talese you are given the proverbial ringside seat (pun intended) his description of Ali’s Parkinson’s induced vagueness with Castro is remarkable. We are given a deeply insightful account of political diplomacy at work, of Castro and his disregard for timekeeping and protocol. It is a tale of two giant figures of the last century coming together, Ali presenting the other with millions of dollars in charitable aid, both entourages determined to make the meeting a success for different reasons whilst the central characters stand indifferent in casual compliance.

As Castro makes a hash of remembering Ali’s group and resorting to idle chat about the weather, Ali dozes on and off, stares blankly, leaves others to speak on his behalf and then, out of nowhere surprises Castro with an amateur magic trick. His disappearing handkerchief delights the ageing leader, Ali has been showing the same trick to doctors and patients during hospital visits and is eager to show Castro how he does it. “Let me try” pleads Castro and Ali gives him the false thumb he uses to hide the handkerchief. Having kept Ali waiting it seemed gloriously fitting that the meeting ends at the elevator with the boxer walking away leaving Castro stood holding the false thumb in his hand watching the doors close.

The dialogue which weaves throughout the essay reminds me of DeLillo at his finest and vice versa, it is a prompt to take a fresh look at sports journalism and more especially that from the golden era of boxing, football and athletics when men and women of real character and interest stole our hearts and cemented their names in folklore. It is a great pity that his latest work can not now stand up alongside his other work, perhaps he should rewrite it as a semi fictional story for its subject, like so many of his essays is a fascinating one.


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