Very, Very Ridiculous

Tom Wolfe, chronicler of the comfort class

Illustration by Tom Wolfe, as
featured in Wolfe's
In Our Time; Published
by Farrar Straus GirouxHow ridiculous can Tom Wolfe be when he really gets going? Very, very ridiculous. In his first collection of nonfiction in 19 years, Hooking Up (it also includes the novella "Ambush at Fort Bragg"), Wolfe takes upon himself the job, among other things, of supplying a hortatory manifesto for a New American Patriotism that he can't believe hasn't yet taken hold now that we've beaten back the Nazis and Communists and managed to dominate "the world to an extent that would have made Julius Caesar twitch with envy." There's lots of keening blather about the new millennium initiating a second century of a "Pax Americana" that will "last a thousand years," and about the U.S. being "an El Dorado where the average workingman would have the political freedom, the personal freedom, the money and the free time to fulfill his potential in any way he saw fit. It got to the point where if you couldn't reach your tile mason or pool cleaner, it was because he was off on a Royal Caribbean cruise with his third wife."

(I don't know about you, but I take zero pleasure in imagining Julius Caesar twitching with envy because of my country's imperialistic success. I also don't know what the hell Wolfe means by Pax Americana, if you stop to remember that the first century of American "peace," which Wolfe says started in 1900, included Dresden, Hiroshima and My Lai. And if Wolfe thinks the U.S. is an El Dorado for the average worker, he ought to take off that white suit of his and wear a blue or pink collar for a change, the way writer Barbara Ehrenreich did a couple of years ago when she worked for a miserable month as a waitress—that'd wipe that condescending tone off his style right quick.)

Once in a while, he gets so absurd that even he realizes he's making no sense, and so he starts throwing down exclamation points as rhetorical cover, not recognizing that by all rights, he used up his share of that form of punctuation about three decades ago. "The light! The light at the apex of every human soul!" he froths at one point. What's he referring to here? Believe it or not, he's talking about the dissenting Protestant belief in a human soul that can have direct access to God's power, which Wolfe thanks for the birth of the microprocessor, Silicon Valley and the brave new world of the New Economy.

Wolfe's bullshitting us, of course: he doesn't believe in any light in any apex of any soul, not for a second—but he's shameless enough to toss around the hieratic language if he thinks it'll persuade us to start cheerleading along with him in his astoundingly incoherent boosterism. Wolfe loves—or at least is patricianly amused by—just about everything in America except its intellectual culture. Intellectuals he cannot abide. In a dazzlingly woolly-headed and fact-challenged essay called "In the Land of the Rococo Marxists" (which received a collective shrug of indifference from its target audience when it appeared in Harper's awhile back and is reprinted here), Wolfe accuses American intellectuals—by which he means left-leaning academics in the humanities—of being knee-jerk Marxists who have been cowed by European theorists from Germany and France and just can't seem to appreciate how good we've got things in the U.S. of A. What he seems to find most offensive and threatening is poststructuralism—Derrida, Foucault and their American followers—and if I willfully misunderstood poststructuralism as much as Wolfe does, I'd probably find it offensive and threatening, too. (Poststructuralism, basically, tries to think and theorize about things without a concept of truth, center or ground. It's not evil; it's Nietzsche.) It's amazing that Wolfe, who prides himself on painstaking documentation and thorough research, seems to have learned everything he knows about what he most hates about American intellectual life from Deconstruction for Dummies. Of course, what he really hates about American intellectuals is that they don't pay enough attention to him. Wolfe, the author of three huge megaselling books (The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full), whose latest novel The New York Times Book Review said "contains passages as powerful and beautiful as anything written . . . by any American novelist," still feels, well, dissed. This comes through loud and clear in a boisterous, scarily revealing fulmination of an essay called "My Three Stooges," in which Wolfe rails at the American literary establishment—here embodied by John Updike, Norman Mailer and John Irving (his stooges three)—for not liking A Man in Full. I read Updike's and Mailer's reviews when they came out, and they seemed reasonable enough; they essentially said Wolfe is a great entertainer but not a great artist. He can do old-fashioned Dickensian plots, and he's great on décor, but he can't do character—especially modern interiority. In Hollywood terms, he's good on structure, and he'd make a fine set designer and wardrobe man. This ticks Wolfe off in a big way. He goes into an elaborate history of literary realism and naturalism, claiming to be a direct descendant of Zola, Dreiser and Steinbeck, and after a while, your jaw just drops because what made those writers great wasn't their superficial notation of a big social canvas (Wolfe's forte), but their ability to use those canvases as backdrops for complex human beings to act out their destinies. That's what Updike and Mailer, in fact, accomplish in the Rabbit series and The Executioner's Song, respectively—books Wolfe couldn't touch if his white cane were a 10-foot pole.

The embarrassment of Wolfe's braggadocio—"I'm Zola's heir," or to put it in Wolfean terms, "I'm Zola's heir!!!!" —couldn't be clearer when one reads "Ambush at Fort Bragg," the novella Wolfe includes as (one supposes) proof of how great a writer he really is. The thing is as thin as gruel. Ostensibly a fictional exposé of the behind-the-scenes machinations of a network news magazine "ambushing" (via hidden microphones and cameras) a group of three soldiers whom they suspect killed a gay soldier at Fort Bragg, the story goes no deeper into the nature of news media than Broadcast News, no deeper into the military mentality than A Few Good Men, and no deeper into the psychology of homophobia than Will & Grace. The major characters are given about two traits each, and everything they do from there is totally predictable. The only good thing about the novella is Wolfe's absolutely hilarious reproduction of hicks talking about homosexuality: "That's what they ain't abaout to tale you when they's talking about gay rats and legal madge between homoseckshuls and all 'at sheeut." But even that, in the end, is distracting: you laugh like crazy over the dialogue and forget that these guys are vicious murderers. That Wolfe seems to miss this effect reveals, as much as anything else, that in the end, he's certainly not a great novelist, not a deep thinker, but a quick, witty, bitter satirist starved for attention—not Zola's heir, but H.L. Mencken's.

Hooking Up by Tom Wolfe; Farrar, Straus, Giroux. 293 pages, HARDCOVER, $25.

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