PRINT March 2001


Tom Wolfe

COMMANDING EASY BRAND RECOGNITION in his high-maintenance southern gentleman drag (white suit, patent pumps, and spats) and now pushing seventy, “America's maestro reporter/novelist” is still at it, tracking the zeitgeist in his retro getup. Marrying giddiness with cynicism, Tom Wolfe deploys the mannered showmanship of a circus ringmaster or a Robin Leach—and way too many ellipses . . .italics. . . and exclamation points! A photo of the man in full graces . . . the back of the book! As he jauntily steps forward (into the twenty-first century, we presume?) his smirk exudes defiant entitlement that brings to mind another man of the people via Yale . . . Dubya! and is just as gleefully reactionary.

If you think Hooking Up concerns what the pandering jacket copy describes as moral-free young people rubbing “moistened crevices and stiffened giblets together” before learning each other's names—you might as well skip this book and turn the TV back on. Framed as the maestro's take on “an American's world” here and now, these essays address the development of the microchip, the “hottest” new field of neuroscience, “radical changes about to sweep the arts,” and Wolfe's tiffs with his colleagues.

With a compulsive hyperbole rivaling the urgency of Richard Simmons, the Wolfe-man's main premise is a whopper: At the turn of this century “America has shown the way in every area save one. In matters intellectual and artistic, she remain[s] an obedient colony of Europe.” Wolfe is baffled that though we have won the Cold War, we have yet to liberate US culture from “European formalism” and other “isms.” (Did he hear about Pop art?) Blithely separating decadent form from wholesome content, the maestro prophesizes: ‘The revolution of the twenty-first century, if the arts are to survive, will have a name to which no ism can be easily attached. It will be called 'content.’ It will be called life, reality, the pulse of the human beast."

Excellent. When not grousing about highbrow imports, Wolfe is at his best reporting on the human beast from a self-consciously Americanist perspective. “Two Young Men Who Went West” skillfully interweaves portraits of Silicon Valley legend Robert Noyce, a charismatic science whiz and jock (not an effete . . . nerd!) who went forth to forge our cyberfest destiny by developing the microchip and eventually Intel, and Josiah Grinnell, the Dissenting Protestant who founded Noyce's hometown in Iowa as a congregationalist haven where g-dliness mingled good works, worldly success, and nonhierarchical institutions. And in his giddy account of trends in neuroscience, “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died,” he gushes over the latest models of the “self,” in which traditional notions of free will and individual responsibility are radically challenged by . . . evolutionary psychology! He cheers science dudes discovering the genetic “hardwiring” of character traits (“I love talking to these guys!”) and seems to rejoice that the “peculiarly American faith in the power of the individual to transform himself” through “enterprise and true grit is already slipping away, slipping away. . . slipping away . . . ,” thus toppling our native self-help gurus from Emerson to Dale Carnegie to Tony Robbins. He glibly concludes: “Where does that leave ‘self-control'? In quotation marks, like many old-fashioned notions—once people believe that this ghost in the machine, 'the self,’ does not even exist and brain imaging proves it, once and for all.” Yee-ha.

While fawning over neuroscientists who make short work of the “self,” he has no such patience with the current cultural relativists, identity politicians, and posthuman types who do so in the academy. In “In the Land of the Rococo Marxists,” he characterizes poststructuralist big shots like Stanley Fish (pulling “$230,000 a year plus perks, big-time stuff in academia”) and Judith Butler as the latest strain of crypto-Marxist whiners and . . . “intellectuals”! which Wolfe defines, in the words of a “French diplomat. . . overheard at a dinner party,” as a “person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others.”

Like Wolfe's “art worldlings” (the anxious snobs he caricatured in The Painted Word), American intellectuals are country cousins eager to “catch up with . . . urbane European models.” “The Intellectual,” according to Wolfe, resembles Dr. Seuss's Grinch: “That sneer, that high-minded aloofness from the mob, those long immaculate alabaster forefingers with which he pointed down at the rubble of a botched civilization.” The only problem is, American intellectuals are eager to “strike the pose” but have “no rubble to point at”! because everything is superterrific here! After all, Wolfe opens the book marveling that the “working class/proletariat” is obsolete now that 'the average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman“ enjoys Caribbean vacations, sips designer water with his third wife, and generally lives ”a life that would [make] the Sun King blink."

Save a funny at the expense of Susan Sontag (“her prose style had a handicapped parking sticker valid at the Partisan Review”), some of Wolfe's lamest passages describe how postwar American “intellectuals,” frustrated that “real fascism and genocide were finished” and nostalgic for something to oppose, “used McCarthyism—the whole Communist witchhunt—and, above all, Vietnam” to jig up “fascisms” so watered down that they were eventually reduced to critiquing “language” itself as the oppressor (“Adjectival Fascism”). His example of such “intellectual” posturing is the unidentified feminist theorist who flunked students who didn't spell women as “womyn”—an obvious nudnick.

“The Invisible Artist” trots out Wolfe's caricature of the art world in which “art worldlings” (apparently bamboozled by status anxiety and snob appeal) turn from popular, representational art to embrace conceptual, “skill”-free naarishkeit originating in Europe: “Art worldlings regarded popularity as skill's live-in slut. Popularity meant shallowness. Rejection by the public meant depth.” But guess what? Public-pleasing figure statues are back! Wolfe asserts, in his profile championing “America's most popular living sculptor” (until he died in 1999), Frederick Hart, the guy who did the soldier-tchotchkes appended to Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial to appease folks offended by its “skill”-free minimalism. After Hart invented a technique for casting sculpture in acrylic resin that “resembled Lalique glass,” the “gross sales of his acrylic castings had gone well over $100 million. None was ever reviewed.” Elegizing this unsung yet redemptively best-selling, creative soul, Wolfe seems to be vicariously nursing his grudge against meanies who dismiss his own écriture as merely popular and not serious Art. Perhaps his next art-appreciation piece will celebrate LeRoy Neiman.

Indeed, history will “absolve [Hart] and prove him right,” according to Wolfe. The twenty-first century will deliver us from the evil empire of highfalutin modernism into art that's good ‘cuz more folks like it. Since collectors are snapping up “once-ridiculed” nineteenth-century figure painters like Bouguereau, and Norman Rockwell is getting respect (?), Wolfe speciously argues that “skill”-free, gloomy twentieth-century stuff like abstract art and the art worldlings’ darling Picasso will eventually go the way of last year's Prada.

My favorite essay by far is “My Three Stooges.” While he admits how hard it is to toot one's own horn with grace, I marveled how Wolfe nevertheless persisted in bragging and score-settling with geriatric rivals Norman Mailer, John Updike, and John Irving. Elaborating the success of his last novel, A Man In Full—quoting positive reviews, high sales figures, and a Time cover story—Wolfe begs our indulgence while setting up the controversy he is building toward, until finally you realize his Big Point is that Mailer, Updike, and Irving . . .didn't like his book!!! Quoting lavishly from Irving's digs on a Canadian chat show and Mailer's and Updike's unlaudatory reviews (“They were feeding me lines I couldn't have dreamed up if they had asked me to write the script for them”), Wolfe is eager to explain why his Three Stooges, sitting on recent bombs, are jealous of his popularity.

Excited that they dis his oeuvre as “entertainment” instead of “literature,” he pronounces, au contraire, that his novel heralds no less than “a revolution in content rather than in form about to sweep the arts in America, a revolution that would soon make many prestigious artists, such as our three old novelists, appear effete and irrelevant.” (For a dandy in a white suit and spats, the maestro is pretty preoccupied with the problem of “effeteness.”) The future belongs, he rants, to popular fellows like himself, Steinbeck, and Zola, who plunge “whole-heartedly into the social reality” of their time rather than wallow in alienated inwardness, out-of-it aestheticism, or weird fantasy. Projecting his familiar cold war between the popular and the no-good, the vital content deliverers and the empty formalists, he conveniently ignores the great authors (hello, Proust?) who weren't serialized in the Rolling Stone of their day, as well as trenchant social observers (Begley, Roth) writing now who don't operate like him, as deluxe journalists.

While it is fine, indeed all too human, for Wolfe to inflate his self-defense into an aesthetic credo—doesn't everybody?—his diatribe conveniently bares the reductive thinking that rankles in his hopped-up reportage: his irrationally phobic cultural isolationism; his intolerance, even suspicion of the unpopular; his obtuse insistence that you can divorce form from content; and his psychological materialism that enables him to draw such a crude distinction between “social reality” and “mere” subjective experience, “the ghost in the machine.” Further marking his literary terrain, he provides us with a specimen “novella” about sharpy TV producers stinging white-trash soldiers. While irritatingly heavy on the transliterated southern accents “Ambush at Fort Bragg” is readable stuff, but strangely slight after the preceding polemic presenting such stories as our cultural salvation.

Mr. Wolfe's wild ride through the turn of the century ends with a forgotten old broo ha-ha he dredges up to offer like those “chocolate-covered peppermint coins the franchise hotels put on your pillow when they turn down your bed at night” when in fact it has been lying dormant. . . since 1965! As a feisty young reporter, the maestro wrote “Tiny Mummies!” to profile the famously publicity-shy New Yorker editor William Shawn, basically mocking him as a mummy running a stuffy, inbred operation. Wolfe's prose spurts popish sound-effects: “Wh-wh-wh-whwh-whoooaaaaugh! whum . . . Floopk! . . . the Checking Department schmarfs . . . Zoom!” twitting the reserve of his subject. The portrait created such a scandale, ladies and gentlemen, it inspired . . . J.D. Salinger himself to break his silence to dash off an angry telegram! The maestro recounts it all . . .but by this time one is sick of the gasbag.