Writing in The New Yorker in 1998, Bill Buford reported that some 5,000 telescopes are bought each year in New York City. This in a place, he added, where “most people haven’t seen a star since the great blackout in 1977.”
With or without telescopes, people like to watch other people. Buford noted his own fondness for gazing from his apartment windows at distant neighbors. “The experience is utterly exhilarating,” he wrote. “An example of the city’s inhumanity? Possibly. But it might also be an expression of its insatiable humanity, an appetite for more and more about the human species, the visual equivalent of gossip.”
The title of Buford’s article was “Thy Neighbor’s Life,” a nod toward Gay Talese’s classic of participatory socio-sexual journalism, “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” (1981). Talese has always — as most good journalists have, I suppose — liked to watch. To read “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” is to want to comment to him, as Laura Dern does to Kyle MacLachlan in “Blue Velvet,” “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert.”
Talese’s controversial new book, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” is once again about watching. Once again this celebrated journalist is skirting the lines between detective work, deviance and desire.
This book tells the story of the most fully actualized voyeur we are likely to encounter. It’s about a man named Gerald Foos, who owned a 21-room motel on a seedy strip outside Denver.
In the 1960s, Foos recounts, he installed specially made vents over the beds in many of his motel’s rooms, allowing him to see without being seen. Over several decades he peered down almost nightly from what he sometimes called his “observation deck.” He pleasured himself, ad nauseam. He also took hundreds of pages of detailed notes on human nature, sexual and otherwise. He saw himself not as a creep and not as James Stewart in “Rear Window,” but as a pioneering researcher, a peer of Masters and Johnson.
Talese quotes from Foos’ journals at great length in “The Voyeur’s Motel.” Sometimes Foos is merely horny or exasperated. (“God, I’m never going to get to observe those magnificent breasts!”) At other times, as he witnesses human nature at its worst — fights, robbery, theft, cruelty, disregard — he begins to seem like a version of Nathanael West’s advice columnist in “Miss Lonelyhearts” (1933). He feels the world’s weight on his shoulders. “People are basically dishonest and unclean,” Foos writes. He grows alienated and depressed.
“The Voyeur’s Motel” is queasy-making on multiple levels. Talese became aware of Foos’ activities in 1980, after the motel owner wrote him a letter. Talese visited the place and took part in several viewing sessions. Once, his silk tie slipped through a vent’s slats and dangled down over a sexually engaged couple, and almost got the observers caught. “What was I doing up here, anyway?” Talese writes. “Had I become complicit in his strange and distasteful project?”
At the time, Talese decided not to write about Foos, partly because he demanded anonymity. But Talese didn’t turn him in for his unethical and illegal behavior, either, even after Foos confessed that he had witnessed a murder. The two stayed in touch until, in 2013, Foos gave him permission to use not only his journals but also his name. He was approaching 80 and felt that the statute of limitations would protect him from lawsuits.
“The Voyeur’s Motel” has come under ethical criticism since an excerpt was published in The New Yorker. It has also been criticized for fact-checking lapses. The Washington Post reported last week that, among other things, Foos did not own the motel for eight of the years (1980-88) he was said to have been gawking. Confronted with this fact, Talese briefly disowned his book before changing his mind.
He is right to stand by his book. Talese makes it abundantly clear in “The Voyeur’s Motel” that Foos is not an entirely reliable narrator. Most of what it describes happened before 1980. Indeed, Talese finds his own inconsistencies in his story. “I cannot vouch for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript,” he writes. The reader moves forward with this in mind, while having little doubt that much of what Foos recounts actually happened. Future editions of the book can address some errors and omissions.
I’m not altogether certain I can make an airtight ethical case for Talese’s journalism in “The Voyeur’s Motel,” at least not in the space remaining in this column, but I can make a literary one. This book flipped nearly all of my switches as a reader. It’s a strange, melancholy, morally complex, grainy, often appalling and sometimes bleakly funny book, one that casts a spell not dissimilar to that cast by Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer” (1990), another slim volume about the uneasy fandango that nonfiction writers and their subjects perform.
On paper, Talese is not the darkly provocative intellectual that Malcolm is, nor does he try to be. (You can imagine her book about this one, as you are reading.) Yet one reason “The Voyeur’s Motel” is gripping is that Talese doesn’t fletcherize his material. He lays out what he knows and does not know in sentences that are as crisp as good Windsor knots. He expresses his qualms but trusts the reader to come to his or her own conclusions.
Nor does he demonize Foos. It’s plain that he is a sick man. He follows some of his subjects home to get a sense of their outside lives. But he is also a sensitive and tragic one. He becomes bitter about the Vietnam War while watching crippled veterans try and sometimes fail to have sex with their wives. His well-written journals are filled with admiration for lesbians, whom he calls “the only couples who seem to enjoy pleasing one another in bed.”
Foos defends his voyeurism by saying that no one was hurt or exposed. Like Buford, he is a seeker after his own species, but one who took things vastly too far.
You will often feel shabby while reading “The Voyeur’s Motel.” You are meant to. It’s an intense book that reminds us that a problem of being alive is seeing things you hate but are attracted to anyway. It’s possible to admire it while wanting to pluck out your own prying eyes.
“The Voyeur’s Motel” by Gay Talese; Grove Press ($25)