by Tom Wolfe
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 293 pp. $25.00
The first time I saw Tom Wolfe on television, many long years ago, I was astonished. Wolfe was on his way to becoming famous as a whoop-de-doo practitioner of what was then known as the “new” journalism—which meant journalism whose author had contrived to share equal billing with his subject (and which now seems to have become the only kind of journalism there is). In those days Wolfe was publishing a good deal in a hot young magazine called New York, an offshoot of the old Herald Tribune.
Since that time, New York has gone through a number of new owners, managements, and styles. But in the period of its first freedom and inventiveness it was focused almost exclusively on the fashions, and tribulations, of up-and-coming New Yorkers—people like its editors, in fact. It treated these people sometimes with sympathy and sometimes with high but somehow easy-to-take ridicule. Wolfe was responsible for a fair amount of the latter, having just about the most finely educated, and meanest, eye for most of the petty foibles known to man.
This perceptiveness was accompanied by a curiously unmastered literary style, all ellipses and exclamation points and typographical gesturings, as if the fingers and the mind were as yet not quite in synch. In addition to this verbal excess Wolfe was also then in the process of becoming famous for his sartorial excess, white suits worn in the manner of a riverboat gambler. His dress has since come to seem a kind of amiable peccadillo, but in those days it was taken by many to be a thumb in the journalistic eye or, to put it another way, a thumbing of the Wolfean nose.
Then one evening there he was, in fall white resplendence, speaking with an interviewer on a television talk show, and as he began to answer the sorts of silly questions that are usually asked of literary people by members of the media I found myself most pleasantly surprised and also chastened for my earlier tendency to dismiss him. Tom Wolfe, the putative reckless high-flyer of American pop journalism, turned out to be a man of enormous intelligence and cultivation.
It may be remembered that the mid-60’s were already promising not to be good days for either culture or politics. Some people who had eyes to see and ears to hear were beginning to sense that life in the advanced sectors of society was moving in an ever more threatening direction. And there was Tom Wolfe, darling of all who aspired to be on the qui vive, talking in the most perspicuous and well-honed terms about the various “liberations” bursting upon us. As he himself might have put it in those days, “Right there on the tube! A famous author!! Talking . . . unfashionable sense!!!” In any case, by the time the program was finished, I was about ready to stand and salute.
Little by little, it all began to come together: the fearless inquiring mind, the wicked eye, and the cooling—though never to be really cooled—prose. Wolfe began producing not pieces but essays (and from the essays, books) whose most memorable achievement was their sharp, serious, and yet truly funny—hence unforgettable—take on things. Among many examples there was “Radical Chic,” an essay that skewered the great conductor Leonard Bernstein by associating his playtime leftist politics with the idea of nostalgie de la boue, the make-believe romantic affection of the truly well-off for the life led by their fellow creatures at the social bottom, i.e., in the mud, or boue. Another permanent contribution to the vocabulary of urban life was Wolfe’s characterization of the pressure being wielded by certain black activists against white officialdom as “mau-mauing,” a borrowing from the name of a Kenyan terrorist group that had something to do with the British retreat from Her Majesty’s African colonies. (By now the history has been forgotten, but Wolfe’s usage is likely to remain immortal.)
Beyond adding permanent enrichment to the American lingo, over the years Wolfe has also, with malice aforethought, fluttered more than one cultural dovecote—Left, Right, all around the town. Thus, at a moment when heroism and greatness were being desperately sought wherever Americans could find it, he insistently made light of the celebrated daring of our astronauts (The Right Stuff, 1979). True, he provided a certifiably thrilling substitute, namely, a group of test pilots first among whom was the dazzling Chuck Yeager; but for all their panache, Wolfe’s pilots embodied only their own, not the nation’s, heroism. Another example of his will to deflate cultural piety—in this case, high-cultural piety—was to be found in his jeremiads against the influence of the avant-garde in art and architecture. Both The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981) brought down upon Wolfe’s head the charge of rank philistinism; but, indifferent to a degree that seemed—and seems—quite singular in a successful upmarket author, he did not appear to have turned a hair even at being taken to the woodshed (in COMMENTARY) by so formidable a taker-to-the-woodshed as Hilton Kramer.
As it happens, Kramer had less warrant for turning a cold shoulder to Wolfe’s ideas and attitudes than did the members of the hip literary-artistic community who had mysteriously embraced him even as he trod mercilessly on their most lovingly held attitudes. Instead, at least for a while, they lionized him, either because they were unable to see what he was really getting at, or because they were just guiltily bored by their own witless beliefs about the nature of the society they lived in, or simply because he was so vivid an entertainer. Still, here and there, evidence began to emerge that the message was at last being received.
And then came the Big Book, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987). Word had it that Wolfe had spent long and agonizing years producing this novel, which in one way or another included most of everything he had come to know about New York. Bonfire is a treasure-store of social observation, especially but not exclusively about goings-on among the rich and the new rich and the would-be rich on the island of Manhattan. Its pages are full of wonderfully observed scenes and—more than that—labels, which in their perfect precision have gone into the language forever (like Wolfe’s characterization of certain instantly recognizable types of fashionable women as “lemon tarts” or “social x-rays”). But while a masterpiece of something, Bonfire in the end—perhaps to the pleasure of Wolfe’s less than generous critics—fails to be a masterpiece of a novel.
In another of his essays, Wolfe had announced to his literary contemporaries that it remained the responsibility of the novelist to seek out, study the details of, and retell the truths—or, if you will, the truth—about social reality. Taking his contemporaries to task for having abdicated the novelist’s duty of bringing alive the world around him, he daringly declared that his own models were (among others) writers like Theodore Dreiser and Emile Zola, both of whom had by and large come to be dismissed by literary modernists.
But Zola and Dreiser, social novelists par excellence, were also more innocent of heart than Wolfe. No matter what sorrows they inflicted on the protagonists of their books, no matter how unending the bleakness of the world they undertook to bring alive, in the end they never failed to bestow on their characters at least some measure of authorial love and redemption. In Bonfire, brilliant portrait though it be, no one merits either the author’s or the reader’s love, and no one is redeemed. When the entertainment pales, a reader is left only with the bleakness.
The true fulfillment of Wolfe’s ambition would have to wait for A Man in Full (1998). The hero of this novel, a highly successful builder in Atlanta, Georgia, who as the novel opens has fatally overreached and is on his way down to darkest defeat, is a large and powerful and at the same time totally unreflective man, caught in the toils of forces he is too limited to take proper measure of. But he has been given the capacity, by Wolfe, to make the reader truly care about what happens to him, and the same is true of a number of the minor characters who swim around him. Like Bonfire, A Man in Full abounds in precisely rendered social detail; but in this case, and really for the first time, the detail is there to serve the story and not the other way around. Although Wolfe ties up the book’s loose ends far too abruptly and neatly with a merely handy contrivance, as a novelist he had finally broken through from a very high order of shrewdness to a deep and truly affecting intelligence.
All of which lends a certain extraneous interest to Hooking Up, a hodgepodge of articles and essays written on various topics with varying degrees of seriousness and aplomb and put together with the air of having been cleared off Wolfe’s desk to make room for his next large and ambitious work. There is, for instance, an amusing novella clearly written by the erstwhile much-too-clever Tom Wolfe. And there is a piece on the old New Yorker magazine and its fabled editor, William Shawn, which, when it was first published many years ago, caused a huge stir of protest from a variety of eminences. (A number of reviewers of Hooking Up have singled out this piece as having given them particular pleasure, perhaps because it is so clearly a work of the old Wolfe, full of telling bits of ridicule, but in fact it does nothing to account for the great power exercised within the literary community by the New Yorker of that era or by its mysteriously unlikely editor.)
Hooking Up also includes a most interesting celebratory account of the two men who between them were responsible for producing the silicon chip and hence for the creation of Silicon Valley. Then, in a couple of fascinating essays taking off from the new fields of sociobiology and neuroscience, Wolfe tangles bravely with the question of the nature of man. There is also a kind of editorial about those “rococo Marxists,” as he dubs them, who have refused to recognize that America is the world’s greatest power, as well as an understandable but nevertheless unfortunate effort, called “My Three Stooges,” to counterattack criticisms of his work that have been leveled by Norman Mailer, John Updike, and John Irving.
All of this is at the very least high entertainment, and some of it succeeds in being something more than that. (Probably the most stirring essay in the book is a portrait of the late sculptor Frederick Hart, scorned by the art-world cognoscenti for having devoted himself to the grandeur of the human body.) But by far the most intriguing item—to me, at least—is the title essay, a previously unpublished discourse on the social and sexual styles of today’s young and the kind of future that life holds in store for them.
Wolfe describes these girls and boys and young men and women with the kind of slashing precision we have learned to take for granted from him. But there is something new in his tone—some quality of urgency, perhaps even of pain—that is especially arresting. The material under scrutiny somehow seems to have cut much closer to the bone, and the title he has given to this piece, and to the book, has an especially fearful ring to it. For “hooking up” is the term of choice among the young to characterize their sexual behavior with each other, as in, “I met this guy last night, and we hooked up for a while.” Wolfe’s perfect rendering of the thoughts and attitudes that have thus contrived to render sex, in the late Allan Bloom’s phrase, “no big deal,” makes one’s hair stand on end. A mere observer, I think, no matter how perceptive, could not produce such an effect; it takes a truly internalized recognition—one that in the end, out of a sheer feeling of comradeship, made me laugh out loud. Oho, said I, paraphrasing King Lear, hast thou a daughter, too?
There is, then, much reason to look forward with eagerness to Tom Wolfe’s next major book. For now he has lovingly gotten both feet sunk deeply and inextricably into the muck.