In the 1999 Women’s Soccer World Cup in Pasadena, California, the United States was locked in a scoreless tie in regulation time with China. Watched by more than 90,000 screaming fans in the stands and millions more on television, the U.S. made all its five penalty kicks, the last one by Brandi Chastain, who removed her jersey after her goal in an image that became symbolic of the women’s game. There was one Chinese player who failed in scoring a goal in the ensuing shootout that was decided 5-4 in the U.S.’s favor. Her name was Liu Ying. The quest to meet Ying and examine the aftermath of her very public failure is the centerpiece of this meandering book by Gay Talese.
Talese’s journalistic credentials are unquestionable. One of the leading lights of the New Journalism movement, Talese’s pieces about Joe DiMaggio and Floyd Patterson are de rigueur reading for every aspiring journalist. He cemented his reputation in books such as The Kingdom and the Power and Thy Neighbor’s Wife. Talese’s writing is exemplified by clarity, perfect cadence, and a knack for the right word to capture the meaning. All of these traits are in abundant display in the current book. Unfortunately, though, the book also loops through multiple narratives, goes in unending concentric circles, and very often seems to lack the gravitas that a writer of Talese’s repute warrants. It is akin to Shakespeare writing about the Department of Motor Vehicles in impeccable prose.
The book is also about writing a book when the author is stymied for a topic. That Talese had a book contract but was obviously stuck for ideas is clear early on. The author searches for a subject while switching between a baseball game and the women’s soccer finals. He seems intrigued by the idea of interviewing Liu Ying because Talese is aware that such a public loss of face may be hard to digest in a different culture. But this is merely a takeoff point for him as he journeys into, among others, his early childhood as the son of an immigrant tailor, Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner’s shenanigans, the saga of Lorena Bobbitt and what she did to her errant husband’s genitals, and a restaurant in New York City. While he does this with enviable flair and a penchant for marvelous writing, it poses tremendous logistical difficulties for the reader as the subject matter changes with dizzying speed.
This book is a great example of what might have been. Talese’s interest in the genesis and aftermath of failure (as he so tellingly revealed in his magazine portrait of the boxer Floyd Patterson) could have led to an in-depth examination of the Chinese women’s soccer team in 1999. Instead, it wanders off into numerous, albeit interesting, territories that leave an unsatisfied feeling at the end.