Hooking Up, by Tom Wolfe. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 293 pages, $25.
With Tom Wolfe it mostly goes like this: The better he is, the more powerful his pyrotechnic prose, the more you hate him–the more you hate his hard-nosed politics, his fancy personal style, his magnificently self-assured talent. Ever notice how nobody cares anymore about Wolfe the art critic? He can diss modern painting and modern architecture till the starched collar on his white shirt starts to wilt–so what? And nobody’s seething about A Man in Full , though the author will insist that this second novel was a huge hit and controversial, too. They certainly seethed about The Bonfire of the Vanities –remember the howls of all those anguished liberals? Tom Wolfe triumphant is almost too bright to behold; to see him clearly, catch him when the batteries are low and the dazzle of his trademark exuberance dimmed. Catch him when he’s stopped spinning at optimum speed, at the first sign of a wobble.
He wobbles early and often in Hooking Up , an eclectic collection that includes recent magazine work, a novella and his notorious two-part profile of New Yorker editor William Shawn (it’s still delightful, 35 years later; still deadly). Mixed in with the expected virtuoso riffs and badass contrarian moxie, there’s a nasty echo. It’s the noise of a cranky old man hitting the typewriter keys too hard. He’s stiff with prejudice and stuck rehearsing the same old tricks, like the sad white-suit schtick.
The introduction, a bit of fluff turned out for Tatler , is a kind of sour love letter to America, brassy and omnipotent on the cusp of the millennium: “Americans could boast of a freedom as well as a power unparalleled in the history of the world.” But they don’t boast enough to satisfy the rah-rah author of The Right Stuff . They feel guilty, these free and powerful Americans; they dote on youth, and the kids are sexually promiscuous, and the dot-com billionaires don’t dress right, and the cultured types are all slavish in their regard for Europe. (What a moldy old chestnut, that last one: “In matters intellectual and artistic, [America] remained an obedient colony of Europe.”) Mr. Wolfe, not ashamed of boasting, thinks of himself as the guy who nails down the specifics, who does the research and the ground-zero reporting; it’s disappointing to see him wafting these ultra-light generalizations.
But the next two pieces–one about the birth of Silicon Valley, the other about real and illusory technological advances in the digital world and in neuroscience–remind the reader that Tom Wolfe not only knows how to tell a story but knows also which story needs to be told. They loop around, these essays; they’re full of stylish swerves and unexpected connections. The reader is a pampered guest. Delicious moments are prepared and presented with flourish. A passage about the pared-down corporate structure pioneered by Bob Noyce at Intel (he did his best to eliminate hierarchy) leads to the observation that, under the Spartan Noyce, there were no “executive lunches,” which leads in turn to a soaring aria about the “sumptuous,” “ineffable experience” of expense-account lunches “back East” in New York City: “[I]t was Mount Olympus in mid-Manhattan every day from 12:30 to 3:00 p.m., and you emerged into the pearl-gray light of the city with such ambrosia pumping through your veins that even the clotted streets with the garbagemen backing up their grinder trucks and yelling, ”Mon back, ‘mon back, ‘mon back, ‘mon back,’ as if talking Urban Chippewa–even this became part of the bliss of one’s eminence in the corporate world.” That is Tom Wolfe in full.
The only substantial previously unpublished essay in Hooking Up is “My Three Stooges,” the author’s response to John Updike, Norman Mailer and John Irving, each of whom said things Mr. Wolfe didn’t like about A Man in Full . In other words, we are treated to an essay about why his writing is better than his critics would have you believe. Not a pretty sight. To make his case, poor wounded Mr. Wolfe has to exaggerate the wrongs done to him by Messrs. Updike and Mailer: He claims that they declared his new novel “anathema,” whereas, in fact, they praised it faintly (which was about right). And he has to inflate the literary throw-weight of John Irving, who does indeed despise Mr. Wolfe’s novels. But can one accept John Irving as a judge on a par with Messrs. Mailer and Updike? According to its author, A Man in Full is an “alarmingly visible” example of “the likely new direction in late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century literature.” Surely, then, Mr. Wolfe has better things to do than flail at straw men and buffoons.
Things get worse: “My Three Stooges” is followed by Ambush at Fort Bragg , a novella serialized in Rolling Stone and easily Mr. Wolfe’s weakest fiction. It reads like a purpose-built validation of the Updike-Mailer thesis, which is that Mr. Wolfe is good but not great, an entertainer but not an artist.
In Ambush at Fort Bragg , he certainly stirs up the old Schadenfreude : If your idea of entertainment is watching loathsome people do loathsome things to themselves and others, this is the ticket. A slimy TV executive, Irv Durtscher (the name says it all), is the producer of a gotcha! network news program called Day & Night . When we meet him, he’s at work on a show about three soldiers who most likely beat to death a gay soldier in some dive near Fort Bragg. Irv entraps them with hidden cameras and microphones, then skillfully edits out the reasonable doubt and airs the package prime time. On the cutting room floor is one redneck soldier’s hair-raising account of a firefight in Mogadishu, and also his forceful argument against gays in the military. The gay-bashing bad guys are in some respects noble, the crusading good guys in nearly all respects beneath contempt. The idea behind the story–its agenda–is to topple political prejudice, to turn the tables on the sanctimonious liberal media. But there are big old Wolfe tracks everywhere: The manipulations of the author, in this bit of mean-spirited realism, block the view. The story isn’t told, it’s set up, just like the three ambushed soldiers.
The treat at the end of Hooking Up is the first republication of “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead” and “Lost in the Whichy Thickets: The New Yorker “–a powerful pair of sucker punches thrown from the pages of Clay Felker’s New York (in those days–1965–it was the Sunday supplement to the New York Herald Tribune ). Both blows landed square on the chin of William Shawn (“faithful hierophant!”), just as The New Yorker was congratulating itself on its 40th anniversary.
Mr. Wolfe fondly notes, in a foreword entitled “Murderous Gutter Journalism,” that he wrote his “counter-parody, [in] a style that was everything The New Yorker wasn’t: urgent, insistent, exclamatory, overstated–and fun.” It’s all that and more. He skewers the magazine’s self-reverence, the awed hush (“the Whisper Zone “) of the offices near Mr. Shawn, the creepy incestuousness (” Overpowering eugenic advantage! “). He captures the place whole–sights, sounds, smells–down to the heft of the rag paper on which endless multi-colored internal memos were written.
But the style of the New Yorker pieces and the ambiance they evoke are easily more arresting than anything Mr. Wolfe has to say about the magazine itself, its Byzantine editing process or its soporific content. Why are Mr. Wolfe’s literary perceptions so flimsy compared with the details he dishes up about Shawn (the maddening speech patterns, the nodding, the smiling, the rolling of the eyes) or the sartorial tics of the staff? And why did no one notice? Because this was Tom Wolfe at his beautiful, blinding best–the surface dazzle dumbing us down, as it would for decades to come.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.