Satire and Beyond
Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine.
by Tom Wolfe.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 243 pp. $8.95.
In Contemplating existence thirty or forty years hence, one is struck dumb by the prospect of having to explain to a new generation, insane in its own right, what the 60’s and 70’s were like. An impossible enterprise in the best of circumstances, but luckily there will be the works of Tom Wolfe, a man who has done more than any other to encompass the spirit of the age.
If Tom Wolfe had written nothing else in his career but “Radical Chic,” it would nevertheless have to be said of him that he achieved what almost no imaginative writer can realistically hope for in a lifetime; he had effected “social change.” Overnight, as it seemed, the publication of Wolfe’s observations on the cocktail party given by the Leonard Bernsteins for the Black Panthers put an end to the phenomenon to which he had given a name—radical chic. But no less remarkable than this accomplishment is the fact that nothing in the style or content of “Radical Chic,” read these many years after, seems dated. If anything, it has improved with time, a proof perhaps that the range of emotion that can profitably be recollected in tranquility is wider than even Wordsworth dreamed.
Wolfe’s new collection, Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, is likely to come as something of a surprise to a public accustomed to the cold-eyed satirist of Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, and the like. There are, to be sure, “typical” Wolfe sketches in this book, merciless in their intentions and unyielding in their contempt for the fashionable—for, above all, the hypocrisies of the intellectual Left. But interspersed among these are portraits with reverberations of another sort: satire with a soft underbelly, satire subordinated to the almost palpable affections of a writer whose subject has got under his skin.
Such a portrait, for example, emerges in “The Truest Sport: Jousting With Sam and Charlie,” about an F-4 Navy pilot stationed on a carrier in the Coral Sea during the Vietnam war. Wolfe’s hero, whose name is Dowd, is a man constrained by the peculiar code of combat set down by the Pentagon to go out on missions governed by rules which can only work to the advantage of the enemy; but he is not one to comment on such inequities. He is a “fly boy,” competent, unassuming, expert, absorbed by duty. An ordinary and yet not an ordinary human being, Dowd is a creation of pure regard, the opposite of all one has come to recognize as Wolfe’s targets.
Aside from its considerable merits as a sketch, “The Truest Sport” is enlightening about the man who wrote it. To a degree unparalleled by any major writer in America today, and to a degree surprising in one whose subjects are drenched in modernity, Wolfe is an old-fashioned man. The Dowd portrait virtually throbs with an admiration for excellence, for the chivalric, for modesty, for courage in the face of danger. More so than any other American writer one can think of, certainly any American journalist one can think of, Wolfe’s is an affirmative view of ordinary people.
Still, no dispensations are given by Wolfe to those ordinary people who fall into the camp of the trendy-educated, the talky college types swimming in culture who are the subjects of Wolfe’s most mordant satire. Witness what happens to the secretary in “The Me Decade and The Third Great Awakening,” who goes to an EST training session seeking a solution to her life’s great problem (hemorrhoids). Here is Wolfe at his savage best; but if in the sketch of Dowd there surfaces a new and unexpected note of respect and admiration, in the story of the beautiful hemorrhoid-sufferer doggedly pursuing the moral imperative of self-exploration, there surfaces a nearly scatalogical loathing that takes one quite as far from the comic and that is, in fact, discomfiting to read.
“The Intelligent Coed’s Guide to America” is another example of vintage Wolfe (though with a difference). The essay is a hilarious and envenomed assault on the intellectuals for whom it is always two-minutes-to-midnight for American democracy, intellectuals like the New York writer who figures in the collection’s title piece—a beneficiary of fat grants and royalties, a partaker in the good life from Truro to the Hamptons, captured by Wolfe as he is manfully sitting down to work on his new book, Recession and Repression: Police State America and the Spirit of ’76. In “The Intelligent Coed’s Guide to America” Wolfe’s portrait of this class and of the culture it represents becomes tinged with an outrage that goes beyond the possibilities of satire. The essay, begun and maintained with poisonous skill, veers off in the end to an evocation of the Soviet Union’s system of enslavement, the system to which Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave the name the Gulag Archipelago—and to a description of the appalling treatment accorded Solzhenitsyn by some of America’s leading intellectuals.
This final and deadly serious thrust of rage is, like so much else in Wolfe’s new volume, a surprise but not altogether an unwelcome one. It is risky for a satirist to put indirection aside—it has not for nothing been Wolfe’s main weapon—and one can feel at once, in the downward plummet this essay takes toward the end, just how great a risk it is. Still, like the enemies they choose, the risks writers take tell us much about them, and about the values they hold closest. In Wolfe’s case, the essays in this new collection confirm his remarkable literary gifts, and, in announcing forth-rightly where he stands on the intellectual and moral issues of the age, raise him into the ranks of those few writers whose ideas and whose opinions represent an important contribution to the overall health of the culture.