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Review: ‘The Voyeur’s Motel’ by Gay Telese a dark, revealing read



For the Washington Post
Tuesday, August 09, 2016

I was about halfway through Gay Talese’s new book, The Voyeur’s Motel, when the Washington Post published an article casting doubt on the reliability of the voyeur, Gerald Foos. Although he told Talese that he had steadily spied on his clientele at the Manor House Motel, outside Aurora, Colo., from the mid-1960s into the 1990s, it turned out that he had not owned the motel for about eight years of that period and therefore had not seen some of the scenes he said he had, or at least hadn’t seen them when he said he did. There was something of a brouhaha, but my thought, as a novelist, was, “So what?” The book was informative and intriguing. In fact, it reminded me of a novel. And so I kept reading.

It also reminded me of something that happened to me last year, when I was in Britain promoting my trilogy, The Last Hundred Years. I was on a BBC3 radio show with two historians, one of whom is being paid by a publisher to rewrite the career of Henry Kissinger, most famous for blasting the Cambodians into submission during the Vietnam War. Kissinger is old now and wants to be redeemed. This historian castigated me, a novelist, for not doing research, for telling stories, for not being as accurate as a historian would be, even though many, many historians before him have accurately portrayed Kissinger’s (and Richard Nixon’s) ruthless brutality.

Nonfiction writers are prissy about being accurate and telling “the truth.” Talese asserts his reluctance to respond to Foos early on (“I was deeply unsettled by the way he had violated his customers’ trust and invaded their privacy”), as well as his claims to accuracy (“I was a nonfiction writer who imagined nothing and gained whatever I got from talking to people and following them around”). Nonfiction writers think the truth lies in correct facts, but most historic facts are only marginally correct – even people who keep journals, like Foos, elide, forget, overlook, add on to, and Talese could not have followed him around for 30 years. He depended on the journal. What is interesting about history is what we, the readers, make of it, and how we apply what we learn to our days and our times.

One of my favorite history tomes is Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules – for Now. Morris’s book is lengthy, but the story he tells is far vaster – the history of civilization and the shift in power from East to West over the past 15,000 years. Morris is hardworking. He teaches at Stanford, he knows a lot, and he is well respected in his field. Let me say this: He does not know everything, but he wrote his book anyway. What is valuable about it is that he knows enough to have a theory, and his theory is plausible and gives his readers a way of looking back and looking forward. Let me also say this: Morris’s theory will be superceded, just like Herodotus’s theory was superceded, and that of Thomas Carlyle. You know who Carlyle was, right? Maybe not. He was the source Charles Dickens used for A Tale of Two Cities. You know who Dickens was, right?

Before the Foos brouhaha blew up, I was already thinking of how The Voyeur’s Motel reminds me of a novel not because it has a plot or characters (both of these aspects are a little thin) but because Foos, through Talese, was inviting me to do what I, a novelist, am always inviting you to do – to look at my characters making their way through their lives, to contemplate them, to laugh with them, to laugh at them, to disapprove of them or to sympathize with them. A novelist is a voyeur who spies on the lives of made-up people, or people concocted from a bit of this and a bit of that. Most novelists keep their eyes and ears open, and when what they observe triggers an idea for a story, they start writing. They also do research. When I was working on my horse-racing novel, Horse Heaven, I spent a lot of time at Santa Anita, Belmont Park, Chantilly (poor me!). I watched and asked questions because I wanted to be accurate. As soon as I said I was writing a novel, many trainers and owners and punters I met said, “Do I have a story for you!” Were the stories accurate? Maybe, maybe not, but they were amazing and/or funny, and I stuck plenty of them into the novel. When I, as a novelist, come up with a theory about what my characters are doing and why they are doing it, I am not that different from a historian or a nonfiction writer, and the reader is free to say, “That’s a good theory” or, “That’s worthless.”

Once Talese meets Foos a second time, after three decades of intermittent correspondence, Foos himself turns out to be more interesting than the sexual activities he has spied on (which were, more often than not, trivial, boring and unrevealing). He is a collector of sports memorabilia (he estimates the value of his collection at $15 million), he seems happily married, but he is depressive and isolated, and suspicious of surveillance cameras: “The media is now in the Peeping Tom business, but the biggest Peeping Tom of all is the U.S. Government.” His observations have soured his view of humanity. Mostly he wants his curiosity and enterprise acknowleged as an investigation rather than a crime. He is a character in his own book – a self-construction who understands the split between what he writes and who he is. It seems to me, as a reader, that this outweighs the ups and downs of his ownership of the hotel in the ’80s that sparked the brouhaha.

Why do we eavesdrop, gossip, peek through slats or peepholes, read novels, history, nonfiction? Because we want to know how things work. Some forms of learning are respectable, and some are not – standards change, as they were changing when Foos owned his hotel in Colorado and Masters and Johnson were studying sexuality back in St. Louis. All projects have their ups and downs, and those who write the books or do the projects should be open about them, but I, as a reader, was enlightened and entertained by The Voyeur’s Motel; Foos and Talese can be Masters and Johnson, or they can be Henry Miller. It is up to the reader to decide.