Gay Talese (High Notes), a pioneer of literary journalism, has long been beguiled by character, as he has proven across decades of writing. Bartleby and Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener is a three-part this-and-that victory lap showcasing Talese's worthwhile specialty: writing about unsung people. The book's title is a reference to "Bartleby, the Scrivener," what he calls Herman Melville's "great short story about a nobody," and Talese borrows Melville's subtitle, "A Story of Wall Street," for the first offering in Bartleby and Me. The piece focuses on the Bartlebys that Talese observed at the New York Times, where he began his career as a 21-year-old copyboy in 1953. The book's second piece, "In Sinatra's Shadow," is the story behind "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," Talese's canonized 1966 Esquire article. His subject--both here and in 1966--isn't Sinatra so much as the people around him. The book's third offering, "Dr. Bartha's Brownstone," is about what led a successful Romania-born physician to literally blow up his Manhattan home, and himself with it, in 2006. This being a Talese story, it's also about the people who were in Bartha's orbit and part of the brownstone's history and post-explosion fate.
All three pieces are written with painterly precision and respect for hard workers. Talese's own working-class roots surely had a hand in nurturing his lifelong democratizing impulse, which he calls "my reporting on the lives of non-newsworthy people: doormen, bootblacks, dog walkers, scissor grinders...." The list continues, and it's readers' good fortune that Talese does too. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer