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B- : odd variety of pieces (with odd preoccupations) from over three decades, some amusing, some clever -- but never quite enough
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
The cover of the American edition of Tom Wolfe's Hooking Up omits the title of the book. It is just "Tom Wolfe", in huge red letters on a yellow background, screaming at potential buyers (though the title is, at least, squeezed in on the spine of the book). On the cover of Wolfe's recent mega-novel, A Man in Full (see our review), the author's name dwarfed the title, but with some effort one could at least discern a title. No more. Now it is just:
And that is what they're buying, all those people who are buying (and lots are buying -- it's made bestseller lists), after all: "Tom Wolfe", and who cares what's between the covers. It is an interesting though disconcerting presentation, with author completely transcending content.
Contrast this to John Berger's 1999 novel, King (see our review), the British edition of which appeared without the author's name on the cover. Needless to say the American publishers of Berger's book wouldn't stand for his retreating so far into the background and his name is prominently displayed on the cover of the American edition. Needless to say Wolfe's British publisher also cut him down to size, reducing the typeface in which his name is printed to an almost embarrassingly discreet size and restoring the title to the cover. (There is surely some terrible lesson about the state of the arts and of publishing in all this: take what you will from it.)
The idea that personality trumps content might seems odd, but of course it isn't. Names sell. Image sells. "Tom Wolfe" (we're surprised there is no ™ or ® sign right there by the name) sells -- quite well too, apparently.
To complement the name on the front cover -- and just so readers know who or what they are dealing with -- the back cover is graced by a picture of the author, best foot forward in his elegant white-tie costume. No simple head-shots for Tommy: this is an author always attired in splendid regalia and don't you forget it. Doesn't he look dandy in his fancy dress-up outfit ! Such urbane polish ! Why, think of the debonair and refined words that must flow from his pen !
Okay, okay, one should not judge a book by its cover (or an author by his or her fashionable affectations). And there really is a book here, between the covers, almost three hundred pages worth of writing (though we are curious how much worse -- or better ? -- sales figures would be if these were blank, the book sold merely as a contentless bookshelf trophy). Included are various essays, new and old, including Wolfe's famous and notorious 1965 piece on The New Yorker's William Shawn. Also included is the novella Ambush at Fort Bragg, previously available only in recorded format (as read by Edward Norton).
The title essay considers "What Life Was Like at the Turn of the Second Millennium: An American World". It sparkles with Wolfeian wit (as opposed to actual wit) and those who are amused by Wolfe's writing should be amused by it. (Appreciation of Wolfe's humour appears to be a matter of taste: many readers profess to be entertained by his drollery, but we have always found it rather unpalatable.) Not that the piece isn't clever: Wolfe is on target with many of his broadsides, skewering contemporary American society. Laced -- saturated ! -- with humour that is too broad, however, he blunts his satire -- so with the concept of "hooking up" itself which he milks for considerably more than it is worth.
There are several profiles in the collection. There is a piece on technology pioneer Robert Noyce (of Intel fame), who (so Wolfe) "managed to create an ethical universe within an inherently amoral setting: the American business corporation in the second half of the twentieth century." Here, as elsewhere, Wolfe extolls good ol' Mid-American (Grinnell, Iowa, in this case) values and their triumph over the East Coast establishment (in this case hidebound science-temples such as MIT). Large-scale thinkers such as Edward O. Wilson and Teilhard de Chardin are portrayed (with Wolfe making some fairly interesting connections), neuroscience explored, and anything with the whiff of Marxism or deconstructionism or the like simply dismissed.
The profiles are curiously meandering and roundabout, occasionally lacking focus, lashing out at perhaps too many targets. They are certainly readable, and entertaining, in part.
Wolfe is a fairly perceptive cultural and social critic. He is not taken in by the grossly exaggerated expectations surrounding the World Wide Web and essentially correct when he states that all the Internet really does is speed up "the retrieval and dissemination of information" and that all the other claims about the Internet are ... "Digibabble". (Though here -- as elsewhere -- he simplifies too much. There is a bit more to the Internet.) Marx, Freud, Derrida, Foucault get no respect from Wolfe (in most cases appropriately), while the American ideal is trumpeted high (if not fully convincingly). Prescient Nietzsche is invoked several times, having anticipated the horrific wars of the 20th century, due to the death of god (a neat little reference that, as used here, would, however, not appear to withstand closer scrutiny -- but close scrutiny is something Wolfe strenuously avoids).
Among the most curious pieces is Wolfe's passionate defence of American sculptor Frederick Hart, an artist par excellence according to Wolfe, and an unjustly neglected one. Hart was one of those who entered the competition for the Viet Nam war memorial in the early 1980s, submitting the only entry among the top ten choices that was representational and not abstract. All the others "could be executed without resorting to that devious and accursed bit of trickery: skill." Needless to say, Wolfe is less than impressed with Maya Lin's winning design ("Absolutely skill-proof, it was."). Populist and popular Hart is his hero, the lack of respect and attention accorded Hart by the press, critics, and art world a badge of honour.
Populism and popularity -- this time in the literary field -- also are a main focus of the piece called My Three Stooges. Here the paragon-artist is none other than Wolfe himself, his monumental A Man in Full (see our review) the exemplary work. "I was going to cram the world into that novel," Wolfe proudly recounts, "all of it." A novel of "Zolaesque realism" ! True to life ! Taken from life ! A naturalist ideal ! Which, given what Wolfe diagnoses as the anorexia of contemporary American literature, is exactly what is needed.
Critical acclaim and popular success ("The book sold so rapidly, it didn't have to climb its way up the New York Times bestseller list. It jumped on at number one and stayed at number one for ten weeks") prove him right. And to emphasize his point he tackles his three stooges, three critics who had the temerity to -- so Wolfe -- "denounce" A Man in Full. Heavyweight names, too: John Updike (in The New Yorker), John Irving (throwing a "temper tantrum on television"), and Norman Mailer (in The New York Review of Books).
It is an amusing attack Wolfe launches, and not entirely without merit. Of course, Steinbeck should be admired for his approach to writing The Grapes of Wrath. Of course, there is something to be said for realism (gritty and otherwise) and well-researched detail, even in fiction Of course, the books Updike (Bech at Bay), Irving (A Son of the Circus, see our review), and Mailer (The Gospel according to the Son) had floating around at the same time are not the best examples of what fiction should aspire to (though the Bech book has some things going for it).
The three stooges are very different beasts, but Wolfe wants to take them all down in one fell swoop. It does not quite convince. Wolfe's taste in literature clearly runs far from what is considered (rightly or wrongly) "literary", and maybe he is right that among the "wonderful books" written in America over the past quarter-century are works by Richard Price, Carl Hiaasen, Pat Conroy, Terry McMillan, Jimmy Breslin, Joseph Wambaugh, and Po Bronson. His ideals are so far from ours that we can not even comment. That doesn't mean that he is wrong. It might suggest that he is talking about something completely different when he speaks about literature, and playing that populist card -- differentiating (and separating) down to earth from ivory tower -- for added support.
What doesn't seem to interest him much is sheer literary quality. By the time he wrote A Man in Full he had at least weaned himself from the exclamatory style of A Bonfire of the Vanities !!! And certainly there are striking realistic descriptions in the book -- as much as anyone ever needs to know about horse breeding, for example. But in literary terms -- style, form, presentation, the folding and unfolding and rounding off of the plot(s) -- it is not really that good. And surely that should count for something too.
Wolfe offers fiction in Hooking Up too -- the novella Ambush at Fort Bragg. It tells the story of those involved with a TV news-show, Day & Night, as they try to entrap three soldiers from Fort Bragg into admitting they beat a homosexual soldier to death. No doubt Wolfe thoroughly researched gay-bashing soldiers and television news-show production in order to come up with this. There is TV personality Mary Cary, producer Irv Durtscher (the "Zola of the Ratings Sweep"), and three skinhead hick soldiers who proudly defended their country and probably killed one of their comrades.
It's a messy little story, an indictment of the modern media (a target that is pretty hard to miss) without any clear heroes. It is also not a particularly well-written story. Wolfe tries to get a lot of mileage out of, among other things, the Southern boys' accents: "once more it took Irv a couple of beats to translate: spear far meant superior fire -- they'd have to use subtitles". Maybe Wolfe means to show how truly stupid the TV people are, or maybe it was necessary to explain the meaning each time for the recorded version of the text, but here it is just plain irritating.
As everywhere in his fiction, Wolfe's descriptions are ... creative but not good. Take posture: on the first page Irv is described as slouching in such a slovenly way "that his weight rested on the bottom of his spine." What exactly does this mean ? Given the position of the base of the spine it is very difficult (if not impossible) to rest one's weight specifically there. Try it.
Or, still on the first page, still dealing with posture: Mary Cary is described as having "correct posture to burn". Our understanding of the idiom "to burn" is that it means to have an abundant amount of, or an excess of. Surely posture is something that can not be described in these terms. And on and on and on and on it goes. Some people may like this kind of "creative" use of language -- again, as with his humour, it may be matter of taste -- but it seems to us that objectively he simply isn't a particularly fine writer of fiction. (This doesn't mean that his fiction can't be entertaining and of some worth; we have, after all, stated elsewhere (in a dialogue on the Books o' the Ages) that A Bonfire of the Vanities might be considered the defining book of the 1980s, despite the fact that it is not particularly good.)
Wolfe returns to non-fiction in the last section of Hooking Up, "The New Yorker Affair". The two best pieces in the book are found here: the Foreword and then Afterword to Wolfe's two-part 1965 profile of The New Yorker editor William Shawn. Writing as straightforwardly as Wolfe can, with only a few wiggles off-center, he sets the scene, and then the aftermath of his infamous articles. His biggest concern, he writes, is that "readers in the year 2000 would wonder what all the fuss was about". True enough, it seems a localized concern (though given the endless melodrama around The New Yorker and its editors, as well as the plethora of books about the magazine that continue to appear, the subject matter seems to fascinate a large audience). The fuss itself, however, is most of the fun, and Wolfe gleefully recounts it.
The old pieces -- Tiny Mummies and Lost in the Whichy Thickets -- are themselves fairly amusing, a little slice of cultural history and some fun and damning criticism (most of which seems justified). They are good examples of what Wolfe does best.
Fans of Tom Wolfe should enjoy the collection, though they may be familiar with much of the material. For others: well, there's nothing truly remarkable here, and it is a motley collection, not much helped by the inclusion of the odd little novella, all written in a style that can be hard to take (but is apparently very popular !).
But it does have an interesting cover.
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Tom Wolfe, born in Virginia, studied at Washington and Lee University, and at Yale, where he received his Ph.D. in American Studies. He is the author of a number of non-fiction works, including The Right Stuff (about the American space program), and two novels.
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