It’s Tom Wolfe Versus the ‘Three Stooges’

IN NOVEMBER 1998, John Updike oh so quietly killed A Man in Full .

It was a clean kill. Issued from Mr. Updike’s New Yorker pulpit, the review of the big Tom Wolfe novel seemed mild, gentle and fair: ” A Man in Full still amounts to entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form. Like a movie desperate to recoup its bankers’ investment, the novel tries too hard to please us.” Soon after, in The New York Review of Books , Norman Mailer aggravated Mr. Wolfe further by calling him “the most gifted best-seller writer to come along since Margaret Mitchell.” Mr. Mailer hit upon that zinger only after a long review that seriously took into account Mr. Wolfe’s strengths. “Extraordinarily good writing forces one to contemplate the uncomfortable possibility that Tom Wolfe might yet be seen as our best writer,” Mr. Mailer wrote midway through. “How grateful one can feel then for his failures and his final inability to be great-his absence of truly large compass.”

Mr. Updike, 67, and Mr. Mailer, 77, smelled blood. Both reviews moved in on Mr. Wolfe’s greatest weakness: his quivering need to be perceived as a great author. For all his bluster and devil-may-care attacks on literary establishments from The New Yorker to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Mr. Wolfe, at age 68, is desperate to be accepted into the literary pantheon. He longs for, lusts for, posterity.

Sensing his ambition, Mr. Updike, in his quietly devastating way, and Mr. Mailer, in his best barroom-brawler style, used their reviews to deliver the bad news, leaving Mr. Wolfe as wounded as the high school valedictorian who receives in the mail a thin envelope from Harvard.

Over a year later, Mr. Wolfe is still stung by their words. “There are these two old piles of bones, Norman Mailer and John Updike,” he said in a November 1999 interview with The Charlotte Observer . “Updike took nine pages in The New Yorker , Mailer took 11 or 12 pages in The New York Review of Books , to try to say this is not literature.”

He went on to argue that Mr. Updike and Mr. Mailer won’t take any best-selling book seriously-a pretty shaky line of attack, given that both Mr. Updike and Mr. Mailer have had their No. 1 hits.

Enter John Irving, on behalf of the “two old piles of bones.” Asked, on a Canadian TV talk show, Hot Type , to comment on the “war” Mr. Wolfe was having with Mr. Mailer and Mr. Updike, Mr. Irving said, “I don’t think it’s a war, because you can’t have a war between a pawn and a king, can you?”

Then the 57-year-old author of The World According to Garp and Trying to Save Piggy Sneed called Mr. Wolfe’s novels “yak” and “journalistic hyperbole described as fiction.” Asked if he disliked Mr. Wolfe because of his popularity, Mr. Irving said, “I’m not using that argument against him. I’m using the argument against him that he can’t write … It’s like reading a bad newspaper or a bad piece in a magazine. It makes you wince.” He added that on any page of any Tom Wolfe book, he could “read a sentence that would make me gag.”

Mr. Wolfe soon visited the set of Hot Type , for a retaliatory interview. “Let’s take Irving,” he said. “He’s our prime subject today. His last, A Widow for One Year , is about some neurotic people in the Hamptons. They never get to town. They’re in the house. They’re neurotic … Irving is a great admirer of Dickens. But what writer does he see now the last year constantly compared to Dickens? Not John Irving, but Tom Wolfe … It must gnaw at him terribly.” (Nice stuff. Never mind that, even in reviewing Mr. Irving’s Long Island novel, critics continued, knee-jerk, to compare him to Dickens.) Mr. Wolfe also lumped Mr. Irving in with Mr. Updike and Mr. Mailer. “I think of the three of them now-because there are now three, as Larry, Curly and Moe-it must gall them a bit that everyone, even them, is talking about me.”

BEFORE GIVING THAT INTERVIEW, Mr. Wolfe took on Mr. Irving in a statement from his publisher: “Why does he sputter and foam so?” The same rhetorical question could certainly be asked of Mr. Wolfe himself. And Mr. Wolfe has been foaming and sputtering, a full year after those reviews were published, because of his need to convince everyone-himself and the world-that he is no mere journalist or social satirist but a real artist, and one for the ages.

Alongside his main writings, Mr. Wolfe has made a kind of shadow career as a polemicist. The underlying purpose of this shadow career has been to teach people-critics and readers-how to appreciate Tom Wolfe. Through lectures and essays, the author provides his audience with an easy step-by-step system for seeing Tom Wolfe’s writing as art.

Mr. Wolfe’s shadow campaign started with “The New Journalism,” the essay that kicked off the anthology he edited of the same title. Those magazine articles you’ve been enjoying? Well, went the essay’s argument, they’re not just enjoyable magazine pieces. They’re part of a new form of journalism, and this New Journalism, of which Mr. Wolfe was the chief practitioner, it went without saying, had real artistic merit. Just like the novel.

“The early days of this New Journalism,” Mr. Wolfe wrote, “were beginning to look like an absolute rerun of the early days of the realistic novel in England. A slice of literary history was repeating itself … The very same objections that greeted the novel in the 18th and 19th centuries were starting to greet the New Journalism. In each case the new form is seen as ‘superficial,’ ‘ephemeral,’ ‘mere entertainment,’ ‘morally irresponsible.’”

Mr. Wolfe also argued that novelists-now self-absorbed or alienated and unwilling or unable to describe the world outside their garrets-had left “for our boys quite a nice little body of material: the whole of American society, in effect. It only remained to be seen if magazine writers could master the techniques, in nonfiction, that had given the novel of social realism such power. And here we come to a fine piece of irony. In abandoning social realism, novelists also abandoned certain vital matters of technique. As a result, by 1969 it was obvious that these magazine writers-the very lumpenproles themselves!-had also gained a technical edge on novelists. It was marvelous.”

This was exciting political speechwriting, a nice piece of cheerleading for the nonfiction team from a man who, early in his career, assumed he would start off as a reporter before going on to writing the novel. At the point of writing “The New Journalism,” Mr. Wolfe is deep in the reporters’ camp, claiming that in the 60′s, New Journalism had managed to “wipe out the novel as literature’s main event”; by 1989, after the success of his reported novel The Bonfire of the Vanities , Mr. Wolfe recycled much of the same material for a new essay in Harper’s Magazine (“Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”) that taught people how to read Wolfe the novelist, just as the 1973 essay had taught them to read (and admire) Wolfe the journalist. In the Harper’s essay, he talked up Dickens, Dostoevsky, Balzac and Zola (who did considerable reporting in the field), implicitly making himself their heir: “At this weak, pale, tabescent moment in the history of American literature, we need a battalion, a brigade, of Zolas to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, hog-stomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim its literary property.… The answer is not to leave the rude beast, the material, also known as the life around us, to the journalists, but to do what journalists do, or are supposed to do, which is to wrestle the beast and bring it to terms.”

Continuing the course (Wolfe Appreciation 101) during an interview conducted by George Plimpton for a 1991 issue of The Paris Review , Mr. Wolfe again made the case for the role of research in the novel, describing just how he figured out the plight of his protagonist Sherman McCoy, a Park Avenue man sent to jail: “I had met a number of lawyers. They put me in touch with a few middle-class professional defendants-white defendants who had been through something like McCoy. I eventually met four men, one of whom was tremendously helpful. He told me that the most humiliating part of this experience for him came when he was marched through a metal detector which he kept setting off. They kept taking more of his clothes away from him. He still kept setting off the metal detector. Finally, the policeman in charge of the metal detector had a hunch. He told him to lean over and just put his head in the metal detector. This set the thing off. Then he said, ‘Open your mouth,’ and he said, ‘Oh, look at that! You’ve got a mouth like a coin-changer!’ It was the fillings in his teeth. He began calling the other policemen over. He’d say, ‘Look at this guy. Hey, do it again.’ He wasn’t abusive in language. He didn’t lay a hand on him. Suddenly the fact that these police … were now, not in any perverse or bad way, treating him like an object, an object of sport. It was crushing. It crushed what last defenses he had in this situation. Now this is something I could not have gotten except through interviewing. I don’t think the unaided imagination of the writer-and I don’t care who the writer is-can come up with what is obtainable through research and reporting.”

Even when seeming to discuss matters apart from literature, Mr. Wolfe was again arguing his own case. In the art-world book The Painted Word and the architecture book From Bauhaus to Our House , he describes how consumers found themselves tricked, against their better esthetic judgment, into believing they should own or commission difficult, modernist paintings and buildings. The patrons, he argued, insecure about whether they were “cultured” or not, fell like rubes for the wiles of the fashionably alienated intelligentsia-just as fans of the novel, it’s not much of a leap to say, would convince themselves (after being schooled by wily critics to do so) that they preferred, say, The Lime Twig , a hazy and lovely and elliptical psychological novel by John Hawkes, to a good old piece of social realist narrative fiction about redblooded characters who suffer and change, like, say, The Grapes of Wrath , by John Steinbeck.

Again and again, instructor Wolfe tells the class that the 20th century’s examination of the self in the arts is mere fashion, while full-blooded realism, in paintings or in the novel, is timeless. To return, briefly, to the Harper’s essay: “The introduction of realism into literature in the 18th century by Richardson, Fielding and Smollett was like the introduction of electricity into engineering. It was not just another device.”

On and off for the last two decades, Mr. Wolfe has gone after modernism’s poster boy, Pablo Picasso. While he struts his stuff in his amusing art history lectures, his argument for elevating the Tom Wolfe novel over those of his psychologically oriented rivals bubbles just beneath the surface.

In a talk downtown in ’97, he raised the notion that, in the year 2020, Picasso could be dismissed from the art canon, and that art history professors would instead convey to their students the virtues of Adolphe-William Bouguereau, a technically adept 19th-century French painter who liked to paint cherubs and dazzling historic scenes.

“Just about 100 years ago,” Mr. Wolfe said, “there was a survey taken by a French newspaper in which they asked leading French art dealers, critics, curators, what have you, who would be the French artist of the 19th century to be among the giants of art in the year 1997. And the results were, No. 1, Bouguereau, second, Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier, third was Jean Gérôme.” Mr. Wolfe went on about how popular, rich and esteemed these artists were in their own day. Then he said: “By 1920-1920!-all these people were forgotten. They had become grand zeros in art history overnight.”

Throw this argument into our Novel-o-matic, and we can see that those writers now considered geniuses could be absolutely forgotten in a mere 25 years. Again, the thing on Mr. Wolfe’s mind is posterity. He continued by suggesting that a shift in art fashion will catch up with Picasso: “All the Picasso books, all of them had the same premise: The greatest artist of the 20th century, was he a good man, or a bad man? Arianna Huffington said he was very bad. John Richardson, in the first book of his projected four-volume biography, says for a man who was the greatest artist of the 20th century, he wasn’t such a bad man. That was the starting point of every discussion of Picasso up until, really, Dec. 16, 1996, when there was what was, to me, an absolutely fascinating review in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik on the second volume of Richardson’s work, in which Gopnik says, ‘Who cares whether he’s a good man or a bad man-he’s such a bad artist!’ He made the statement very baldly: What are these images famous for, these harlequins, these minotaurs, these bullfighters? All these images were stale when he used them! And look at this blue period-why are these people blue? Because they’re sad! Talk about originality! Now what made this interesting-people can write anything they want-Adam Gopnik’s beat is Paris … He’s there to keep New Yorkers informed of the word in Paris, and the word in Paris among young artists is that Picasso is a fraud as confining as these academic artists-Bouguereau, Meissonier-with all their technique. So something is started among young artists in Paris … I can sense it here.”

After laying out the case that Picasso was a lousy draftsman, Mr. Wolfe said: “There’s a great line from the Tom Stoppard play Artist Descending a Staircase : ‘Contemporary art is imagination without skill.’ A wonderful line. Skill is the perfect word. Talent would not be the right word-talent is more spirituelle . Skill refers to the ability to make your hand do what your eye wants it to do … In a way, the great achievement of Picasso is to create a permission slip for you to be a genius without skill-and in our time, if I may fast-forward here, we have very quickly reached the point where skill is regarded not only as not necessary for genius, but skill is regarded as a stumbling block, a snag, something that holds artists back! There’s something meretricious about it, kind of a cheap trick.”

MR. WOLFE ARGUED THAT ARTISTS-like the novelists-were turning away from the rich material that lies before them, all because of the intelligentsia’s preference for intellectual game-playing over realism. “Go to Madison Square Garden sometime,” he said, “to a basketball game, but always go early, though, when the two teams come out on the floor, and they wear these leggings. Wait till the Philadelphia 76ers come to town, because they have red leggings. Just visually, why isn’t there some artist doing this? Here are these gigantic figures, and these leggings make them all look eight or nine feet high, and most of them are these fabulous black athletes, and here is this sea of 97 percent white faces in the background. These are moments in the life of the city that should engage every artist, excite every artist.”

In making the case for such art, he is, in effect, restating the case for A Man in Full and The Bonfire of the Vanities , for their importance, for their worthiness in the year 2020 and beyond.

Mr. Updike and Mr. Mailer wounded him so, because neither one of them can be called fabulists; neither one is in the camp of Samuel Beckett or the late-period James Joyce. They are realists. Mr. Updike excels in domestic fiction, that’s true, but his work, centered on the private lives of his characters, has often intersected with public concerns. Those five horny married couples in Couples made it seem like he was a spy in the American suburban bedroom; it won him the cover of Time in 1968. And who has captured domestic sadness the way he has?

If you want to see a multimillionaire undergo a loan workout down at the bank, Mr. Wolfe is, indeed, your man; but in the closeness and quiet of the bedroom at night, no question: Updike.

Mr. Wolfe has something even more difficult to contend with in Mr. Mailer’s disapproval. They’re in the same league, making elements of public life into the stuff of fiction-setting out to capture the times, and then capturing them. In his recent sputterings, Mr. Wolfe tried to undercut the reputation of Mr. Mailer’s nonfiction masterpiece The Executioner’s Song by correctly pointing out that Lawrence Schiller provided most of the research-but writers need not show their work; the end result is all that matters, and The Executioner’s Song , aside from being a page-turner, is crystal clear and melancholy and tense and descriptive of an America that hadn’t been described before (and marred only, perhaps, by Mr. Schiller’s emergence as a major character in the final chapters). And, as recently as 1991, Mr. Mailer was in the social realist magnum opus game himself, with the underrated Harlot’s Ghost , a 1,305-page (1,305 to A Man in Full ‘s puny-by-comparison 742!) rendering of the C.I.A. through the Cold War years, all of them, completely realistic, fully researched and touched with that magic Mailer dementia that makes his fiction lift off the ground and, at the same time, fills the reader with uneasiness for runs of 100 pages at a time.

As for John Irving, well, he did have four writers as main characters in his last novel, so let’s leave him to Mr. Wolfe.

Mr. Wolfe has lately been reporting at Stanford University, trying to come up with at least one more novel. While Mr. Updike and Mr. Mailer are content to add postscripts to their illustrious careers- Bech at Bay , anyone? how about The Gospel According to the Son (for the opinion juste on this interesting and neglected book, see Mr. Updike’s review of it in the giant tome More Matter , which begins, so perfectly that your knees ache: “The Bible is like a once-fearsome lion that, now toothless and declawed, can be petted and teased”)-Mr. Wolfe, a late bloomer in fiction, is still trying to sweat out his prime, and he’s already had a heart attack, he’s nearing 70, he knows he’s running out of time, and he’s just not sure if he’s going to make posterity’s cut.

Mr. Updike got in the death blow, in his review, by saying that Mr. Wolfe, like his namesake, Thomas Wolfe, is a writer who has “failed to be exquisite. Such failure would not seem to be major, but in the long run it is.” The long run. Posterity. Mr. Updike knows how Mr. Wolfe thinks. That’s why Mr. Wolfe continues, more than a year after the verdicts came down, to sputter and foam so.