Monday, May 21, 2018

Tom Wolfe: The Way He Wrote on the Way We Live Now

In an American cultural scene that fervently embraced modernism, Tom Wolfe—who died the other day of pneumonia at age 88—was a throwback to an earlier time, in both his personal and literary style. It was most obvious in his attire—starting with his white three-piece suits, then fitted out to a T with high-collared shirts, polka-dot ties and colorful handkerchiefs. 

All of this got him noticed—indeed, made him a brand of sorts. But even after two decades, Wolfe was surprised at just how fascinated people were with his dandyish apparel, as I discovered the first time I heard him speak, in 1987, at Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU), not far from where I live in northern New Jersey.

Wolfe would have preferred to answer questions at length about the new book he was promoting, The Bonfire of the Vanities. But all but one of the first several questions he fielded concerned his suits. “My,” he said drily, shaking his head. “I hope our conversation will become more elevated soon.” 

(For those who wonder how and why he took to this: It was, he told Michael Lewis in a 2015 Vanity Fair interview, the custom of males in his native Richmond, Va., to wear these. When he came to New York as a young reporter, he was so strapped for cash that, instead of simply wearing the suit in the summer, he wore it in winter, too, as the material was warm enough to wear it in that season, too.)

In the counter-cultural 1960s, Wolfe’s fashion style went against the grain. But so did his literary style. In both the early ground-breaking creative nonfiction that he called “The New Journalism” and the fiction that dominated the last three decades of his career, he looked to 19th-century novels for his models. These works by Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Balzac, Zola, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy revolved around class issues in major cities, using a sprawling canvass to depict an entire society rather than the interior life of a single individual. And it was all based on fact.

One of the best examples of that approach is Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel detailing the upheaval caused by an arriviste fraud in Victorian London, The Way We Live Now. In the wake of two major recessions in the last 20 years, readers have taken up that book with renewed interest for how it depicts the loosening of old financial and social restraints. 

Years from now, when future readers want to understand how the American counterculture and Wall Street unsettled the country that succeeded the British Empire as the world’s premiere capitalist power, they will assuredly find in Wolfe the same qualities so many have found in Trollope: enlightenment and amusement.

In the two times I saw Wolfe, he gave a preview of what he would write about within a few years. The first was at FDU.

Reality, he noted, had a way of catching up with what he had only imagined in his fiction. Writing Bonfire for its initial serialization in Rolling Stone, for instance, he conceived of a character on the subway who is unnerved at the sight of a small group of African-American youths strutting down the aisle. Not long afterward, in one of the racially charged incidents that defined New York in the 1980s, a similarly terrified Bernhard Goetz shot four African-American youths he suspected would mug him. Wolfe ended up discarding and re-imagining the whole scene.

Reality-based fiction, Wolfe told the FDU audience that night, had an uncanny way of becoming unexpectedly relevant all over again. The famous closing of Sinclair Lewis’ 1927 novel Elmer Gantry, he observed, depicted the lustful preacher’s roving eye noticing the ankles of a pretty young woman in his congregation. Sixty years later, libidinous men of God were acting out this fictional fantasy, with the ministries of conservative preachers Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart upended by sex scandals.

Postwar prosperity combined with the class, racial and sexual warfare roiling society were godsends for authors, Wolfe felt. Yet the fertile field of American culture, Wolfe suggested, was being ignored, as writers emerging from college MFA programs were steered toward “minimalist” and “psychological” fiction. 

Aghast at the toll this took on the novel as a genre, Wolfe elaborated on his criticism in the FDU lecture in his article “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” in the November 1989 issue of Harper’s. In contrast to the self-absorption he saw about him, Wolfe advocated a different approach in a 2008 interview he gave Tim Adams for the British paper The Guardian: “To me, the great joy of writing is discovering. Most writers are told to write about what they know, but I still love the adventure of going out and reporting on things I don’t know about.”

The second Wolfe talk I attended occurred at a real estate convention in Las Vegas in the mid-1990s. He had just spent several years researching the industry, and developers in the audience that day chuckled appreciatively over how accurately and vividly he had described two contrasting scenes many of them had experienced: first, the executive suites with mahogany tables and custom carpeting in which bankers extended massive loans to those real-estate tycoons; then, when the debts couldn’t be paid on time, small tables in uncomfortable environments where “workout artists” called in the loans.

Three years later, in A Man in Full, Wolfe mined comic gold from these scenes in his memorable “Saddlebags” chapter (named after the spreading underarm sweat induced on suddenly nervous loan victims by these “workout artists”).

Master of the Zeitgeist

Few have summed up the zeitgeist, or “spirit of the age,” with such zest as Wolfe. Bonfire captured Wall Street in all its gaudy, greedy, almost animal excess (bond traders “braying for money”), complete with protagonist Sherman McCoy, an arrogant Trumpian “Master of the Universe” with a major sense of entitlement to his sexy mistress and to the wealth used to win her. (In one of the novel’s most biting passages, McCoy laments that, despite his hefty income, he is “hemorrhaging money” because of the lavish spending needed to maintain his status.)

Speaking of “Master of the Universe,” can you think of any other recent writer who coined so many catchphrases that have become famous—“good old boy,” “the right stuff,” “The Me Decade,” “radical chic,” “lemon tarts,” “social x-rays”? Or one who spelled out one of the primary political principles of our time: “A liberal is a conservative who has been arrested." (This last motto came from Bonfire.)

With this gift for neologisms, along with italics, ellipses, and exclamation points coming in torrents, Wolfe’s sentences called attention to themselves as much as his tailored suits did. And his gleeful penchant for going after sacred cows sealed his reputation as a social provocateur.

Solidity and Style

But anyone looking beyond the surface would notice a writer of considerable erudition (he earned a doctorate in American Studies at Yale) who could write solidly on subjects as diverse as America’s periodic upswings in spiritual fervor, the pretentiousness of much modern art and architecture, and Harvard zoologist Edward O. Wilson’s incorporation of neuroscience into his work.  

I only got through a third of his last novel, Back to Blood (2012), before I had to put it aside. I did not identify with its Miami milieu the way I had with the squalling Gotham I have known my whole life, not to mention the real estate and academic settings of A Man in Full and I Am Charlotte Simmons, respectively. 

But Wolfe should be credited with going far outside his comfort zone to research and write Back to Blood. He not only investigated an environment he knew little or nothing about before, but finished the novel in his 80s, when he was not only managing living with heart disease but also (I learned from Peggy Noonan’s Wall Street Journal article this weekend) struggling with spinal misalignment.

Similarly, I Am Charlotte Simmons, about a freshman co-ed’s humiliation on a sex-and-alcohol-drenched campus, came in for mixed reviews. But in light of the #MeToo movement, that work deserves a more generous re-evaluation. 

Extolling Virtue in an Age Without Heroes

Like William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Bonfire has been regarded as a “novel without a hero.” But though that may be the initial impression it leaves, a more careful reading discloses that there are people in it who dare to live by real and powerful values.

Most obviously, Wolfe valued physical courage. That was most apparent in The Right Stuff, with its account of how the Mercury astronauts were expected to “go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness to pull it back at the last yawning moment.”

But this same preference for the physically brave also figures in Bonfire, in the form of detective Martin, the tough Irish detective who defies an angry mob surrounding the car taking McCoy to court, and Judge Kovitsky, who refuses to let the bond trader be made a sacrificial victim for a crime he didn’t commit.

More generally, Wolfe excluded from his stinging wit the duty-bound—the cops who keep order and try to save lives (e.g., Nestor Camacho, the Cuban-American police officer of Back to Blood), or the husbands who try to provide for their families despite economic upheaval (e.g., warehouse worker Conrad Hensley of A Man in Full).

Assessing Wolfe's Reputation

So many times over the last 40 years, I wondered what Wolfe was working on next and when it would appear. Sadly, I will no longer be able to ask those questions. 

The one question I am left with is what his literary reputation will ultimately be. It is by no means a settled question: Pulitzer Prize winners such as John Updike and Bernard Malamud, for instance, are no longer read as fervently as during their lifetimes, while Dawn Powell, helped in no small part by admirers like Gore Vidal and biographer Tim Page, has achieved a level of appreciation she couldn’t get during life. 

Much will depend on how much Wolfe gets assigned in colleges. He might have a tougher battle making it into classes in fiction, since his novels disdain experimentation in favor of realism. Believe it or not, he might be read more often in history classes, where professors might assign Bonfire so that students might have a better grasp of the mood of the Reagan Era.

Non-fiction and journalism classes will probably have more of Wolfe’s output to choose from, including The Right Stuff, Radical Chic, and his shorter essays in the 1965 collection, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.

A bigger question relates to his loyalty to the large, panoramic fictional form. Some years ago, a friend of mine said she preferred novels to short stories or essays because she preferred total immersion in these fictional environments. I’m afraid, however, that viewpoint is becoming more and more a minority one with each passing day, as USA Today and multiple digital distractions steadily subtract the time that readers can devote to massive novels. These require considerable leisure time and patience—two commodities in ever-shorter supply these days.

It might be the case that Wolfe will need to be continually rediscovered by non-academic readers, like one of the authors to whom he paid tribute, Sinclair Lewis—who has become relevant again (as Wolfe noted) not only through Elmer Gantry but also, as anti-democratic instincts have come to the fore at the national level, through It Can’t Happen Here.

If Wolfe’s legacy endures in this manner, it might testify to the surprising strength of the “social novel,” with Victorian roots and an emphasis on realism, that he had stumped for with such verve and exemplified in his own fiction and nonfiction.

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