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Parajournalism, or Tom Wolfe & His Magic Writing Machine

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

by Tom Wolfe
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 339 pp., $5.50

A new kind of journalism is being born, or spawned. It might be called “parajournalism,” from the Greek para, “beside” or “against”: something similar in form but different in function. As in parody, from the parodia, or counter-ode, the satyr play of Athenian drama that was performed after the tragedy by the same actors in grotesque costumes. Or paranoia (“against beside thought”) in which rational forms are used to express delusions. Parajournalism seems to be journalism—“the collection and dissemination of current news”—but the appearance is deceptive. It is a bastard form, having it both ways, exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction. Entertainment rather than information is the aim of its producers, and the hope of its consumers.

Parajournalism has an ancestry, from Daniel Defoe, one of the fathers of modern journalism, whose Journal of the Plague Year was a hoax so convincingly circumstantial that it was long taken for a historical record, to the gossip columnists, sob sisters, fashion writers, and Hollywood reporters of this century. What is new is the pretension of our current parajournalists to be writing not hoaxes or publicity chitchat but the real thing; and the willingness of the public to accept this pretense. We convert everything into entertainment. The New Yorker recently quoted from a toy catalogue:

WATER PISTOL & “BLEEDING” TARGETS! Bang! Bang! I got ‘cha! Now the kids can know for sure who’s [sic] turn it is to play “dead”! New self-adhesive ‘stick-on” water wounds TURN RED WHEN WATER HITS THEM! Don’t worry, Mom! Won’t stain clothing! “Automatic” pistol is a copy of a famous gun. SHOOTS 30 FT. Water Pistol & Wounds…59c. 40 Extra Wounds…29c.

And there was the ninety-minute TV, pop music and dance spectacular put on at Sargent Shriver’s official request, a disc jockey who calls himself Murray the K, in the hope of “getting through” to high school dropouts about what Mr. Shriver’s Office of Economic Opportunity could do for them. Some Republican Senators objected on grounds of taste and dignity—the message was delivered by Murray the K jigging up and down in a funny hat as the big beat frugged on—but the program did stimulate a great many teenage inquiries. It “worked” in the same sense that parajournalism does.

The genre originated in Esquire but it now appears most flamboyantly in the New York Herald Tribune, which used to be a staidly respectable newspaper but has been driven by chronic deficits—and by a competitive squeeze between the respectable, and profitable, Times, and the less substantial but also profitable News—into some very unstaid antics. Dick Schaap is one of the Trib’s parajournalists. “David Dubinsky began yelling, which means he was happy,” he begins an account of a recent political meeting. Another is Jimmy Breslin, the tough-guy-with-heart-of-schmalz bard of the little man and the big celeb:

Richard Burton, who had just driven in from Quogue…went straight for the ice-cubes when he came into his sixth-floor suite at the Regency Hotel. “Oh, I’d love a drink,” he said. “Vodka.”…”Humphrey Bogart,” he laughed. “Bogey…” Burton has his tie pulled down and his eyes flashed as he told the stories. He tells a story maybe better than anybody I’ve ever heard. The stories are usually about somebody else. The big ones seem to have very little trouble thinking about something other than themselves. His wife kept hopping up and down getting drinks for everybody. She has long hair and striking eyes.

Right out of Fitzgerald, except he would have made a better job of describing Mr. Burton’s wife.

But the king of the cats is, of course, Tom Wolfe, an Esquire alumnus who writes mostly for the Trib‘s Sunday magazine, New York, which is edited by a former Esquire editor, Clay Felker, with whom his writer-editor relationship is practically symbiotic. Wolf is thirty-four, has a PhD from Yale in “American Studies,” was a reporter first on the Springfield Republican, then on the Washington Post, and, after several years of writing mild, oldfashioned parajournalism for Esquire, raised, or lowered, the genre to a new level. This happened when, after covering a Hot Rod & Custom Car show at the New York Coliseum and writing a conventional, poking-mild-fun article about it (what he calls a “totem story”), he got Esquire to send him out to California where the Brancusis of hot-rod custom, or kustom, car design are concentrated. He returned full of inchoate excitements that he found himself unable to express freely in the usual condescending “totem” story because he was inhibited by “the big amoeba god of Anglo-European sophistication that gets you in the East.” At the ultra-last deadline, Byron Dobell, Felker’s successor at Esquire, asked him just to type out his notes and send them over for somebody else to write up. What happened was a stylistic break-through: “I just started recording it all [at 8 PM] and inside of a couple of hours, typing along like a madman, I could tell that something was beginning to happen.” By 6:15 next morning he had a forty-nine page memo, typed straight along no revisions at five pages an hour, which he delivered to Dobell, who struck out the initial “Dear Byron” and ran it as was.

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby is a collection of twenty-four articles written by Wolfe in the fifteen months after his stylistic break-through. It is amusing if one reads it the way it was written, hastily and loosely, skipping paragraphs, or pages, when the jazzed-up style and the mock-sociological pronouncements become oppressive. Since elaboration rather than development is Wolfe’s forte, anything you miss will be repeated later, with bells on. He writes about topics like Las Vegas, Cassius Clay, Baby Jane Holzer, demolition car derbies, a pop record entrepreneur named Phil Spector, and a stock-car racing driver named Junior Johnson. A good read, as the English say. The fifth and last section, “Love and Hate, New York Style,” is more than that. He is a good observer, with an eye for the city’s style, and he would do very well as a writer of light pieces for, say, The New Yorker. “Putting Daddy On” and “The Woman Who Has Everything” are parajournalism at its best, making no pretense at factuality but sketching with humor and poignancy urban dilemmas one recognizes as real. “The Voices of Village Square” and “The Big League Complex” are shrewd and funny social comments—not the bogus-inflated kind he makes in his more ambitious pieces. Even better was “Therapy and Corned Beef While You Wait,” which was in the advance galleys but doesn’t appear in the book. Doubtless for space reasons, but why is it always the best parts they can’t find room for?

A nice little book, one might say, might go to five thousand with luck. One would be wrong. The Kandy-Kolored (etc.) is in its fourth printing, a month after publication, has sold over ten thousand and is still going strong. The reviews helped. Except for Wallace’ Markfield in the Tribune‘s Sunday Book Week, and Conrad Knickerbocker’s penetrating analysis in Life, they have been “selling” reviews. That Terry Southern should find it “a groove and a gas” and Seymour Krim “supercontemporary” is expectable, but less so other reactions: “…might well be required reading in courses like American studies” (Time); “He knows all the stuff that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., knows, keeps picking up brand-new, ultra-contemporary stuff that nobody else knows, and arrives at zonky conclusions couched in scholarly terms…. Verdict: excellent book by a genius who will do anything to attract attention.” (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., N.Y. Times Book Review). Newsweek summed it up: “This is a book that will be a sharp pleasure to reread years from now when it will bring back, like a falcon in the sky of memory, a whole world that is currently jetting and jazzing its way somewhere or other.” I don’t think Wolfe will be read with pleasure, or at all, years from now, and perhaps not even next year, and for the same reason the reviewers, and the reading public, are so taken with his book now: because he has treated novel subjects—fairly novel, others have discovered our teen-age culture, including myself, seven years ago, in a New Yorker series—in a novel style. But I predict the subjects will prove of ephemeral interest and that the style will not wear well because its eccentricities, while novel, are monotonous; those italics, dots, exclamation points, odd words like “infarcted” and expressions like Santa Barranza! already look a little tired in his recent Trib pieces. As Mr. Knickerbocker writes, “There is no one as dead as last year’s mannerist.” A memento mori is another first book by a (really) young writer, Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, which nine years ago went up like a rocket, and came down like one. The reasons for Colin Wilson’s success were more interesting than his book, and so with Tom Wolfe’s present vogue.

The distinctive qualities of parajournalism appear in the lead to “The Nanny Mafia”:

All right, Charlotte, you gorgeous White Anglo-Saxon Protestant socialite, all you are doing is giving a birthday party for your little boy…So why are you sitting there by the telephone and your old malachite-top coffee-table gnashing on one thumbnail? Why are you staring out the Thermo-Plate glass toward the other towers on East 72nd Street with such vacant torture in your eyes?

Damn it, I knew I’d forget something,” says Charlotte. “I forgot the champagne.”

The “knowing” details—Charlotte’s malachite coffee table and her Thermo-Plate windows (and, later, her “Leslie II Prince Valiant coiffure”) are fictional devices, reminding me of similar touches in the young Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills. But Wolfe, who has publicly promised to write eight novels by 1968 and the sooner he gets at it and gives up journalism the better, is no Kipling but a mere reporter who is, ostensibly, giving us information—in this case that there is a mafia of superior, British-born nurses who tyrannize over socially insecure Park Avenue employers like Charlotte to such an extent that they don’t dare give a children’s party without providing champagne for the nurses. This may or may not be true—he rarely gives data that can be checked up on—but if it isn’t, I don’t think we would be quite as interested. Unlike Kipling’s tales, it doesn’t stand up as fiction. Marianne Moore defines poetry as putting real toads into imaginary gardens. Wolfe has reversed the process: his decor is real but his toads are dubious. Junior Johnson and Murray the K and Phil Spector and the kustom-kar designers are real, but somehow in his treatment come to seem as freely invented as Charlotte.

Stylistically, the above passage has the essential quality of kitsch, or a pseudo-cultural product manufactured for the market: the built-in reaction. The hastiest, most obtuse reader is left in no doubt as to how he is supposed to react to Charlotte with her malachite table and—later—“her alabaster legs and lamb-chop shanks…in hard, slippery, glistening skins of nylon and silk.” As T. W. Adorno has noted of popular songs: “The composition hears for the listener.” The specific kitsch device here is intimacy. Intimacy with the subject not in the old-fashioned sense of research, but an intimacy of style: the parajournalist cozies up, merges into the subject so completely that the viewpoint is wholly from inside, like family gossip. “All right, Charlotte, you…” There is no space between writer and topic, no “distancing” to allow the most rudimentary objective judgment, such as for factual accuracy. Inside and outside are one. It might be called topological journalism after those experiments with folding and cutting a piece of paper until it has only one side. There is also an intimacy with the reader, who is grabbed by the lapels—the buttonhole school of writing—often being addressed by Jimmy Breslin as “you.”

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