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Book Review: Thy Neighbor’s Wife by Gay Talese

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Most books, even bestsellers, do not get a second chance at life, let alone a relaunching with a review in The New York Times and an interview in Newsweek. But Thy Neighbor’s Wife is not most books, nor is Gay Talese just any author. Wife spent four months as the No. 1 book in the country in 1980. It was a book America had to read, though critics hated it and savaged Talese for writing it, mostly because, as part of his research, he got naked.

Or, as he put it more directly to me in a telephone conversation last year, “I confessed to adultery.”  Which he did. Talese hung with the free love crowd in California; he worked at a massage parlor or two in New York City. He spent most of his 40s working on Wife. He was married then, as he is now, to Nan Talese, an editor of some celebrity and success of her own, and his next book —  perhaps his last, for Talese takes a long time to write his books and he is now 77 — will be a memoir of their life together.

Wife was not about Nan, though critics placed her among the characters. Wife was about the sexual revolution in America and ranged from Puritanism through the swinging ‘70s. Critics made it out to be a dirty book, which it was not; they made Talese out as a sinner, a pervert and a voyeur, almost certainly more out of their own discomfort with the subject than any nuanced analysis.  He admits he took the criticism badly at the time. Even now, nearly 30 years later, he cannot resist a last shot at one of his tormenters, John Leonard. In the afterword for the new release of Wife, Talese again quotes Leonard’s scathing review in Playboy and savors again, for a moment, the irony that his antagonist is someone who ran off with his own friend’s wife.

Curiously, Thy Neighbor’s Wife garnered far better reviews as sales declined over the years. By the time it was out of print, the book was considered something of a classic – a portrait and history of America’s sexual culture by one of the foremost reporters of that generation. There was nothing like it, then. There has been nothing really like it since. No one has laid bare American sexual culture in such vivid and sometimes agonizing detail as has Talese.

If you were there in the ‘70s, the reissued paperback of Wife is worth reading if for nothing other than what is new – a foreword by Katie Roiphe, an update on people and places and an afterword by Talese. If you weren’t there and wonder what it was like, Thy Neighbor’s Wife is required reading.

You may be struck forcibly, as I am, at how relevant and timely the material remains. The sexual revolution did not end, as is often postulated, with AIDS and the presidency of Ronald Reagan; a premise of my own work (and I’m absurdly but profoundly pleased to get a brief mention by Talese in the afterword to Thy Neighbor’s Wife) is that the revolution is resurgent in a new age of social-sexual networking. I am grateful not to have to compete with Talese in reporting on this. His afterword touches artfully on all that has happened in sexual culture since 1980, but he leaves the field reasonably clear. Has the Internet fundamentally changed sexual culture in America? Talese would not know firsthand, himself. Famously, he is still a typewriter kind of a guy; his concession to modern telecommunications is using a fax machine. But he knows there are books in the details, in the portrait. Because there always are.

As he himself concludes: “There is nothing new in Thy Neighbor’s Wife. … Nor is there anything old.”


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About Jeff Schult

  • Toy

    As someone who came of age in the 80’s and knew what they were missing, I find the sexual culture of the 1970’s so fascinating. The so-called “puritans” Talese raged against at the time don’t hold a candle to our modern day right-leaning, sex-shaming lunatics.