What do we call those who watch the voyeur?

Gay Talese’s new book of nonfiction, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” recounts the years that a Colorado motel owner, Gerald Foos, spent secretly observing his paying guests through special vents installed in the ceilings of some of his rooms. Foos was an unabashed voyeur, and he spied on his guests as they cleaned their toes, used the toilet, ate fast food, argued and — to his great masturbatory delight — engaged in sexual relations.

This is, of course, illegal.

Over decades, Foos kept meticulous notes, which he wrote in a faux-scholarly, detached tone, grandly referring to himself in the third person. He came to think of himself as something of a sociologist (a “pioneering sex researcher,” he wrote), but Foos is not a scholar, and he was never detached.

He was deeply involved in his spying, often masturbating while watching. He preferred young, attractive women engaged in straight or lesbian sex. He grew frustrated when couples didn’t have sex, or had sex with the covers pulled up or the lights turned off. Sometimes he would climb down out of the attic, go outside, turn on his car headlights to shine into the room so he could see better, and then climb back up to the attic.

His observations are not scholarly, but creepy: “The Voyeur couldn’t believe a woman could appear so delicious and athletically in good shape despite her approaching middle years.”

He was never caught, but over time, from his lair in the ceiling, Foos chafed at his anonymity. He wanted recognition for what he pompously called his “research.” And so in 1980 he wrote to Talese, sending him photocopies of his journal, but swearing him to secrecy. They corresponded for years, and Talese went to Colorado to meet him, and to take his turn at the peephole.

Only recently, after retiring, did Foos allow Talese to write about him and name him. And so, for whatever reason, Talese did.

The bulk of “The Voyeur’s Motel” comes from Foos’ journals, long italicized passages that go on for pages, describing sex acts salaciously, in great detail. If you think you are getting a book written by Talese, you’re wrong; Talese’s own words serve as little more than transition to lengthy passages of Foos porn.

Talese wrestles but briefly with the tawdriness of it all. “Had I become complicit in his strange and distasteful project?” he wonders. Why, yes, Mr. Talese, you had.

I am a great admirer of Talese’s other work, but I read this book with growing discomfort, looking for some larger meaning, waiting for some nonprurient reason for publishing it. He tries, toward the end, to draw larger, possibly ironic conclusions about constant observation in today’s Big Brother society, but they are halfhearted and not at all convincing.

Recently, the Washington Post uncovered property records that showed that Foos did not own the motel for eight of the years covered in the book. This news appeared to floor Talese. “The source of my book, Gerald Foos, is certifiably unreliable,” he told the Post. “He’s a dishonorable man, totally dishonorable. … I did the best I could on this book, but maybe it wasn’t good enough.”

I’m not sure why it would be a surprise to find that a man who built a catwalk system so that he could spy on his guests having sex should turn out to be dishonorable.

What a sad ending to a long and stellar career. In putting this book together, the vastly talented Talese has tarnished his reputation and made voyeurs of us all.

 

Laurie Hertzel is the books editor of the Star Tribune. Twitter: @StribBooks. www.facebook/startribunebooks

The Voyeur's Motel
By: Gay Talese.
Publisher: Grove, 233 pages, $25.