F.S.G. Rides Tom Wolfe Like a Rented Mule

When Tom Wolfe took the microphone in the McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago on Friday, May 29, he looked a bit peaked. After all, he was having a very busy day. First, he had gone straight from O’Hare International Airport to a noon luncheon at the tony North Lake Shore Drive spread of prominent Chicago art dealer Richard Gray. There, surrounded by Picasso, Degas and Vuillard, Mr. Wolfe drank iced tea with around 50 supporters of the Chicago Humanities Festival. He told them that any writer willing could settle down somewhere in America for 30 days and come up with rich material for fiction.

He must have liked this idea because a few hours later, when he got to the McCormick Place’s Grand Ballroom, he flew it once more. With good reason: Almost any writer could see some good fiction material right there at Book Expo America 1998, as Mr. Wolfe stood in a circle of light with his publisher, the white-maned, grand old bull Roger Straus, founder and president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc. Given F.S.G.’s reported $5 million to $7 million investment in Mr. Wolfe’s new novel, A Man in Full , F.S.G. had every reason to treat its author like the big-time investment he is. So he was given a full day’s tasks: lunch, speech, press conference, dinner after the press conference. And Mr. Wolfe did his work.

Mr. Wolfe didn’t disappoint the crowd by showing up in charcoal or taupe: He modeled trademark cream double-breasted Wolfe-wear among the booksellers and fans before delivering the official keynote address of the expo. Mr. Wolfe began by

recasting his North Lake Shore Drive message of the day. He told 800 gathered members of the bookselling and literary mob, “I am convinced that any writer willing to go anywhere in the country and settle in for 30 days is going to come up with material far beyond his wildest dreams.

“I had been taken by some friends to see two plantations in southern Georgia,” he said, “and today, plantations are all quail plantations; there are 20,000-, 25,000-acre plantations devoted solely to shooting quail 13 weeks out of the year … and the scale on which people live on these plantations is quite unbelievable.

“There’ll be a kennel wagon with pointers and also retrievers. This will be a carefully reconstructed antique kennel wagon; it is quite astonishing. There’ll be four or five servants on horseback to hold the horses of the guests when they get off, and there’s another team that will bring the table, the tablecloth, the food, drink, all the other things for lunch … it’s a marvelous world …

“Who on earth are these people? A great many of them are real estate developers. They have their ups and downs in Georgia just like anybody else …

And it turns into the world of bankruptcy, and banking … I never thought I’d be interested in banking, but I was. I ran across something called the workout session. That’s when the big daddy … is brought in … to have his feet turned to the fire, to come up with the money … When these big developers borrow money, they go to the bank, they’re usually in a conference room that has oval walnut tables … a carpet that has the bank’s logo.… They have little spotlights on the ceiling. Each one picks out a different painting that’s so incomprehensible, it’s bound to be expensive.”

The Chicago audience got a big laugh from this. Mr. Wolfe went on. “The coffee is served in bone china with the bank’s logo inside,” he said. “When the time comes for a workout session, the surroundings are a little bit different. Instead of a conference room with a walnut table, what you have now is a big table, but it’s really made of modular units of a kind of veal-gray laminate. They usually call for 7, 7:30 in the morning, these breakfast meetings. The breakfast consists usually of something like a little Dixie cup of watery orange juice, a cheese danish on a paper plate, the very sight of which strikes terror in the heart.…

“Instead of the artwork, on the walls are enormous ‘No Smoking’ signs of the kind that you’d expect to see in the … unit of an oil refinery … Instead of the cachepot of carnations, there’s the wilted Dracaena marginata whose prongs have turned yellow … and instead of this Edward W. Fields carpet, there’s a piece of carpet … that has dug into it the feet of enormous office machinery that apparently was there recently.

“Then the fun begins. And these sessions become quite heated emotionally because the person, the debtor, is beginning to see his whole life go up in smoke. It often happens that the debtor will get on his knees, and say, ‘Look, you people are talking about the bottom line, and facts and figures. There’s something in my company that cannot be measured in terms of the bottom line and facts and figures. This company represents my lifeblood, my wife’s lifeblood … this represents pain and suffering and human cost.’ At which point the workout artiste leading the session for the bank says, ‘Please, don’t talk to me about pain and suffering. I was in a war. I lost four fingers.’” The Chicago audience’s reward for Mr. Wolfe was a tremendous laugh for this line.

“I’ll just conclude with one of the other of the main players,” Mr. Wolfe said. “Real estate developers, like many other entrepreneurs in America, feel that they deserve a trophy wife … In corporate America today, the C.E.O. of a successful corporation receives as one of his perks the right to shuck his old wife of two or three decades’ standing and take on a new wife, preferably in her twenties, preferably blond … I happened to be present on many occasions when these mating rituals were taking place, and I offer as a footnote… what is most interesting to me about the discotheque mode of American nightlife–Studio 54, Xenon, Palladium, all those places–is the sight out on the discotheque floor of the 57-year-old CEO and his trophy wife-to-be. They’re not married … And he’ll be out there in a navy blue chalk stripe … He has on a white shirt with a medium spread … He has his hair pulled back over his ears. There in front of him is the trophy wife-to- be. She’s a little tart. She’s about 24, 25 years old, and she’s wearing something like, oh, a pair of Everlast boxing trunks.” This got another big laugh. “She has on a man’s strap-style undershirt. Her hair looks as if a snapper lawnmower just went over it. He’s beaming at her with red eyes, these walnut shell eyelids …” And on he went into the afternoon, spraying Wolfian prose into the Grand Ballroom.

At the press conference following the presentation, F.S.G. continued to guard Mr. Wolfe tightly. In the din in the Grand Ballroom, it was almost necessary to park directly beneath Mr. Wolfe’s chin to hear his responses in their entirety, which is just where 50 or so reporters camped out while Mr. Wolfe murmured into a big, furry TV microphone. He said he was happy to be compared to Richard Price and that he’d like to do a novel about universities. Behind him, F.S.G. vice president and publicity director Jeff Seroy stood, finger stuck in left ear, cell phone pressed to right ear, ordering the getaway stretch limo.

Just as Oliver Platt allowed C-SPAN to tape his candidate in Bulworth , F.S.G. allowed the C-SPAN’s Book TV show to tape Mr. Wolfe’s comings and goings at the event. But since F.S.G. is still planning on selling their 1.2 million copies of A Man in Full (the title’s taken from an old Southern folk song about “Uncle Bud … a man in full/ He had a back like a Jersey bull”) on Dateline or 20/20 or some other legitimate network program, Mr. Seroy arranged for C-SPAN to embargo the Wolfe tapes (except for his press conference) until after the networks have had their way with him. Thus, Mr. Wolfe–like Albert Finney in Dennis Potter’s Cold Lazarus –could be on ice for a while. Or at least until September.

Ja-Lene Clark came all the way from Tulsa, Okla., to come to Chicago and see just what was what at Book Expo America 1998, the book industry’s largest event of the year. Her eyes, a lighter blue than that of the enormous Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc. banner suspended overhead, scanned the plush, creamy white carpet, the lit displays, the fleet of men in suits. “With these big publishers,” she said, “people don’t look at your face. They look at your badge. It makes you feel kind of empty.”

Indeed, the 1000-plus feet of B.D.D.’s display was somehow devoid of affect. Bertelsmann A.G.’s book division maybe could have used a few bowls of those Viagra-analogue blue jelly beans they had over at Harper Collins Publishers. Or maybe a few authors. After all, Bertelsmann’s May newsletter made much of welcoming the new Random House Inc. authors that it would be adding to its stable once the sale, which the Federal Trade Commission greenlighted on Friday, was complete. But except for Peter Jennings, B.D.D. didn’t bring its authors or editors to Book Expo America 1998–only their publishers and subsidiary rights salespeople. Certainly that must have come through loud and clear to B.D.D. author Tim O’Brien, whose editor, John Sterling, was handing out galleys of Mr. O’Brien’s upcoming novel Tomcat in Love (B.D.D.’s Broadway Books) every chance he got. “They didn’t want me to come,” said the National Book Award-winning author ( Going After Cacciato ), baseball cap firmly on head. So he paid his own way.

“We wanted to stay bookseller-focused,” explained B.D.D. spokesman Stuart Applebaum. Meanwhile, Random House, whose “postage stamp” size site one Bertlesmann staffer derided, brought some 15 authors to the windy city, eight of them from Alfred A. Knopf Inc. alone. Random House’s booth was 10 paces across.

Sonny Mehta, Knopf’s president, was asked at a Monday morning panel, Why bring authors to BookExpo America 1998? That is: Sonny, isn’t it interesting that you have such a completely different weltanschauung from Knopf’s new parent company Bertelsmann, and which brought no authors but only business staff ?

“Because,” he said, “it gives us a chance to introduce authors to the largest number of booksellers in the country.” Also: “It humanizes the thing.”

Case in point: the Library of America’s reception for its anthology Reporting Vietnam , when Sydney Schanberg approached the microphone and stilled the room. Even Publishers Weekly editorial director John Baker, who had prodded the poached salmon through speeches by ex-war correspondents Kevin Buckley and Peter Arnett, put down his fork. Mr. Schanberg is a man concerned with the experience of loss–of human lives of newspapers, and even of publishers. Of the impending sale of Random House, Mr. Schanberg said, “It’s not evil. It only means that there will eventually be only two and a half companies, and that there will be only two and a half ideas, when actually, there are two and a half million ideas.”

Dalkey Archive Press publisher John O’Brien spoke to this very matter. Mr. O’Brien is about to close a paperback deal on William Gass’s 651-page The Tunnel , which Knopf published in 1995, and HarperCollins bought for softcover in 1997. Having depleted the 5000 print run, HarperCollins is putting the book out of print. “Now it’s time for The Tunnel to take its place in literature and get out of the cycle of how’s-it-selling?,” Mr. O’Brien said. A professor of English at Illinois State University, he said that it was simply a historical accident that between 1900 and the 1950s New York publishers had once served posterity. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t lament the demise of identity among the houses. Could there come a time when a house like Knopf or F.S.G. has no identity? Mr. O’Brien nodded. “Over a period of time, their roles shrink until it’s all just product.”

At a Monday Book Expo America panel called “The Book Trip,” (the “trip” is from author to bookseller), a Random House troika of Sonny Mehta, Knopf director for promotion Paul Bogaards–who had gone through his own version of camera negotiation with C-Span’s nosy technology and had its team banned from the room–and author Richard North Patterson spoke directly to the idea of product, the importance of jacket design, launch date, Oprah Winfrey. “At one level, what we’re doing is part of the entertainment business,” Mr. Mehta, a man whose sixth sense often paved the way for movie contracts. But Mr. Mehta said he still edits, flying to cowtowns like San Francisco to hole up in a room with Richard North Patterson and go over editing notes. “I prefer to meet face-to-face,” he said, “so Richard understands what I’m suggesting.”

“I’m sure a lot of what we do is insane, but this is how it works at Knopf.”

Knopf, Random House, Bertelsmann, what’s the difference? According to Bertelsmann itself, you can’t find any: Its newsletter carried the headline about the Germany-based company, “Bertelsmann: `As American as Disney.’” It may be, but Mr Bogaards may have not completely ingested that concept. When he began speaking, his first words were, “Guten Tag.” Gute Nacht!

At parties in the land of the landed, Ferdinand Mount has the ear of the Prince of Wales, but out here on the American prairie, Mr. Mount on Saturday night primarily had the ear of a bartender assigned to pour for the Times Literary Supplement party at the Palmer House Hilton. An hour and a half into the party, with attendance holding steady at approximately 15, Ferdy Mount–red-faced, barrel-cheated, sentence-challenged–seemed all to happy to give attenuated drinks orders to the barman. Over on the buffet table, silver-plated warming trays proferred whimsical quiche-like creations and dumplings. Copies of the TLS were laid out on a few tables; one university press guest was careful not to muss them.

Possibly Mr. Mount’s libation orchestration was helping to loosen up his stiff upper lip. Departing guests fairly sashayed out the door, as if there was constant exit music. “It’s like a waiting room in Kosovo,” one chap remarked as he gulped the obligatory glass.

“It makes every other party look like something out of the Satyricon,” retorted his companion.

Perhaps Saturday was not the night to revel in things either British. Granta’s party, at a sprawling, stripped-down industrial-look club called Drink, and serving jam jars of alcohol did not exactly fill to capacity either. The auditory experience was almost as damaging as the one at W.W. Norton & Company Inc.’s 75th anniversary party the night before at the Navy Pier’s Crystal Garden. Editor Ian Jack, cigarette ash on his blazer, shouted with the New Yorker’s fiction editor Bill Buford, who, with his girlfriend Mary Johnson, had spent a pleasant afternoon at Wrigley Field before buckling down to start on the next round of parties. One book review editor of the London Review of Books was not entirely charmed by drinking a martini out of a “jam pot.”

Rea Hederman must really like fresh shrimp, because their plump pink bodies were laid on blocks of spotlit ice at the Granta do, and showed up again the next night–this time on crushed ice and surrounded by tiny bottles of tabasco sauce–at The New York Review of Books bash at Chicago’s venerable University Club. Robert Silvers wanted to get the Cliff Dwellers Club, just down the road, but Library of America beat him to it. (Mr. Silvers revealed what he liked about the Cliff Dwellers. “They have stools made of elephant’s feet,” he said.)

One good thing about the University Club was the disinfectant smell that greeted you at the door. For the hungover, it was certainly as good as smelling salts. Anyway, it was promptly forgotten upon entering the great cathedral of room, beneath whose spectacular vaulted wooden ceiling a hundred people mingled with ghosts of dead alumni. There was the shrimp, and freshly carved roast beef. A pianist and a bassist. Two bar tables. Into the crowd dispersed a group book review editors, fresh from the Library of America’s reception. Unfortunately, one of the convention’s more unconventional authors, performance artist L.A. Ruocco and her lavender (or parakeet yellow, depending on the day) bob, was nowhere to be found. Might there a friendship be forged between art historian Ingrid Rowland–who linked ice cream history to climate history by way of Walden–and the adventuresome Miss Ruocco, whose new book Document Zippo (Soft Skull Press) dances on the cutting edge with tutu theory, sprout theory, and reflexology theory. The New York Times Book Review editor Chip McGrath experimented with his own form of performance art by donning a clip-on nose ring. Anything goes in Chicago.