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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.”

It is hard to say just what Wolfe thinks of Charlotte, or of the real people he writes about. He melts into them so topologically that he seems to be celebrating them, and yet there is a peculiar and rather unpleasant ambivalence, as in his piece on Mrs. Leonard (“Baby Jane”) Holzer, a rich young matron with lots of blonde hair whom he says he made “The Girl of the Year,” that is, last year, there’s another one now. I’m willing to grant his claim, but his piece seems to alternate between building up Baby Jane and tearing her down, damning with loud praise, assenting with not-so-civil leer. As for his readers, flattered though they may be to be taken so intimately into his confidence, made free of the creative kitchen so to speak, they are in the same ambiguous position. “Bangs manes bouffants beehives Beatle caps butter faces brush-on lashes decal eyes puffy sweaters French thrust bras” one article begins, continuing for six more unpunctuated lines of similar arcana and if you don’t dig them you’re dead, baby. Every boost a knock.

But there is one value Tom Wolfe asserts clearly, constantly, obsessively: old he bad, new he good. Although he is pushing thirty-five, or perhaps because of it, he carries the American teenager’s contempt for adults to burlesque extremes. His forty-seven-page ode to Junior Johnson, “The Last American Hero,” ends: “up with the automobile into their America, and the hell with the arteriosclerotic old boys trying to hold onto the whole pot with their arms of cotton seersucker. Junior!” He contrasts his teen-age tycoon, Phil Spector, with “the arteriosclerotic, larded adults, infarcted vultures…one meets in the music business.” Even Baby Jane—Baby! Junior!—loses her cool when she thinks of all those…adults: “Now she looks worried, as if the world could be such a simple and exhilarating place if there weren’t so many old and arteriosclerotic people around to muck it up.”

Those ten-thousand-plus purchasers of Wolfe’s book are probably almost all adults, arteriosclerotic or not—I wonder what his blood pressure is—since there are so many of them still around mucking it up and also in a financial position to lay $5.50 on the line. So it’s not a literal business of age—Junior and Baby Jane aren’t exactly teenagers. Maybe more like how you feel sort of—“in” (new) or “out” (old)? I think the vogue of Tom Wolfe may be explained by two kultur-neuroses common among adult, educated Americans today: a masochistic deference to the Young, who are also, by definition, new and so in; and a guilt-feeling about class—maybe they don’t deserve their status, maybe they aren’t so cultivated—that makes them feel insecure when a verbal young—well, youngish—type like Wolfe assures them the “proles,” the young proles that is, have created a cultural style which they either had been uncultivated enough to think vulgar or, worse, hadn’t even noticed. Especially when his spiel is on the highest level—Wolfe is no Cholly Knickerbocker, he’s even more impressive than Vance Packard—full of hard words like “ischium” and “panopticon” and heady concepts like “charisma” (“the [automobile] manufacturers may well be on their way to routinizing the charisma, as Max Weber used to say”) and off-hand references to “high-status sports cars of the Apollonian sort” as against, you understand, “the Dionysian custom kind.” Or: “The people who end up in Hollywood are mostly Dionysian sorts and they feel alien and resentful when they are confronted with the Anglo-European ethos. They’re a little slow to note the differences between topside and sneakers, but they appreciate Cuban sunglasses.” A passage like that can shake the confidence of the most arrogant Ivy League WASP. Or this:

The educated classes in this country the people who grow up to try [Wolfe writes in his Introduction] the people who grow up to control visual and printed communication media are all plugged into what is, when one gets down to it, an ancient, aristocratic aesthetic. Stock car racing, custom cars—and for that matter the jerk, the monkey, rock music—still seem beneath serious consideration, still the preserve of ratty people with ratty hair and dermatitis and corroded thoracic boxes and so forth. Yet all these rancid people [one assumes “ratty”, “rancid”, etc., are rhetorical irony but one can’t be sure; with Wolfe for the defense you don’t need a D.A.] are creating new styles all the time and changing the whole life of the country in ways nobody even seems to record, much less analyze.

The publisher’s handout puts it more frankly: “Tom Wolfe describes his beat as ‘the status life of our time.’ As he sees it, U.S. taste is being shaped by what were once its subcultures, largely teenage…He zeroes in on the new, exotic forms of status-seeking of a young, dynamic social class, ‘vulgar’ and ‘common’ to the Establishment, that has emerged since the war and that expresses the ordinary American’s sense of form and beauty.” No wonder the book is selling. In addition to appealing to our adult masochisms, it also promises a new sociology of taste. The post-war “culture boom” has greatly increased the number of Americans who are educated, in the formal sense they have gone through college, without increasing proportionately the number who know or care much about culture. There is, therefore, a large and growing public that feels it really should Take An Interest and is looking for guidance as to what is, currently, The Real Thing. The old kitsch was directed to the masses but the reader of Edna Ferber or even Will Durant would be put off, if only by its title, by The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine - Flake Streamline Baby, which is kitsch addressed to what might be called a class-mass audience, smaller and, educationally, on a higher level but otherwise not so different from the old one.

I don’t think they will get their money’s worth, for their arbiter elegantiarum is as uncertain as they are, his only firm value being old-bad, new-good. Not enough. It forces him to abstract “style” so aseptically from all other contexts that it becomes ambiguous even as a guide to taste. Writing of those kandy-kolored automotive aberrations, he drops names desperately—Miró, Picasso, Cellini, the Easter Island statues, “If Brancusi is any good, then this thing belongs on a pedestal”—but his actual description of them and of their creators runs the other way. “Jane Holzer—and the Baby Jane syndrome—there’s nothing freakish about it,” he protests. “Baby Jane is the hyper-version of a whole new style of life in America. I think she is a very profound symbol. But hers is not the super-hyper-version. The super-hyper-version is Las Vegas.” Rodomontade, whistling in the dark. He doesn’t explain why Baby Jane is not freakish nor why she is a profound symbol of the new American style nor why Las Vegas is a super-hyper-profounder one, and his articles on her, and on Las Vegas (“the Versailles of America”) lead me to opposite conclusions, which he often seems to share as a reporter if not as an ideologue. His most extreme effort is his praise of Bernarr MacFadden’s New York Daily Graphic: “Everybody was outraged and called it ‘gutter journalism’ and ‘The Daily Pornographic.’ But by god the whole thing had style…Even in the realm of the bogus, the Graphic went after bogosity with a kind of Left Bank sense of rebellious discovery. Those cosmographs, boy! Those confession yarns!” But the “cosmographs” were merely faked news photos, the confessions dreary fabrications, and that dear old Graphic in fact was gutter journalism in which no kind of rebellion, Left or Right Bank, was involved. Wolfe’s term for its subtle quality is “the aesthetique du schlock“—Schlock being Yiddish for ersatz or phony—and it applies to his other discoveries in “the new American style.” O, they’re tenting tonight on the old camping ground.

There are two kinds of appropriate subjects for parajournalism. The kind Tom Wolfe exploits in the present book is the world of the “celebs”: prizefighters, gamblers, movie and stage “personalities,” racing drivers, pop singers and their disc jockeys like Murray the K (“The Fifth Beatle”), impresarios like Phil Spector (“The First Tycoon of Teen”) entrepreneurs like Robert Harrison (whose Confidential magazine, the classic old one (1952-1958) you understand, Wolfe salutes as “the most scandalous scandal magazine in the history of the world,” adding: “Confidential was beautiful. This may be a hard idea to put across…but the fact is the man is an aesthete, the original aesthete du schlock,” who as a teenage employee of the Graphic received the stigmata direct from Bernarr MacFadden) and pop-art-cum-society figures like Andy Warhol, Huntington Hartford (an anti-pop popper), and Mrs. Leonard Holzer.1 The other kind of suitable game for the parajournalist—though not Tom Wolfe’s pigeon—is the Little Man (or Woman) who gets into trouble with the law; or who is interestingly poor or old or ill or, best, all three; or who has some other Little problem like delinquent children or a close relative who has been murdered for which they can count on Jimmy Breslin’s heavy-breathing sympathy and prose.

Both celebs and uncelebs offer the same advantage: inaccuracy will have no serious consequences. The little people are unknown to the reader and, if they think they have been misrepresented, are in no position to do anything about it, nor, even if such a daring idea occurred to them, to object to the invasion of their privacy. The celebs are eager to have their privacy invaded, welcoming the attentions of the press for reasons of profession or of vanity. While the reader knows a great deal, too much, about them, this is not real knowledge because they are, in their public aspect, not real. They are not persons but personae (“artificial characters in a play or novel”—or in parajournalistic reportage) which have been manufactured for public consumption with their enthusiastic cooperation. Notions of truth or accuracy are irrelevant in such a context of collusive fabrication on both sides; all that matters to anybody—subject, writer, reader—is that it be a good story. To complain of Wolfe’s Pindaric ode to Junior Johnson that his hero couldn’t be all that heroic is like objecting to Tarzan as unbelievable.

But of late Tom Wolfe has attempted more solid, resistant subjects. As his colleague, Mr. Breslin, might put it, he’s been fighting above his weight. There was that front-page review of Norman Mailer’s An American Dream in the Sunday Tribune’s Book Week (which Richard Kluger edits in a more substantial and, to me, interesting way than Clay Felker’s set-‘em-up-in the-other-alley technique with New York). As the French say, the most beautiful parajournalist cannot give any more than he has, and the only way Wolfe could explicate his low estimation of the novel was to jeer at the author’s private life and personality—or rather his persona, this being the aspect of people Wolfe is at home with—followed by some satirical excursions on tangential matters like the ludicrous discrepancy between Mailer and Dostoevsky and the even more laughable crepancy between Mailer and James M. Cain. C’est amusant mais ce n’est pas la critique. Not that I disagree with his low estimate of An American Dream. Mr. Kluger asked me to review it and I declined for lack of time. If I had accepted, I should also have slated it but I don’t think I would have thought of going into Mailer’s personality and private life if only because there is so much in the printed text to criticise. But Tom Wolfe doesn’t seem to be much of a reader.

A week or two later, he took on a subject of much greater mass and resistance; The New Yorker, with which he grappled in the April 11th and 18th issues of Clay Felker’s New York. The perfect target for two young(ish) men on the make with a new magazine competing for the same kind of readers and advertisers. Part One was headed “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of The Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!” It sketched in bold strokes, letting the facts fall where they may, an action painting of a bureaucratic, arteriosclerotic, infarcted organism that was dead but didn’t know enough to lie down and of William Shawn, its editor, “the museum curator, the mummifier, the preserver-in-amber, the smiling embalmer” who took over after Harold Ross died in 1952.2 The second part debunks the magazine itself: “For forty years it has maintained a strikingly low level of literary achievement”—compared, that is, to Esquire and The Saturday Evening Post. There is no space here to consider the truth of these propositions or the methods by which Wolfe attempts to demonstrate them beyond noting that, as a staff writer with an office at The New Yorker for the last thirteen years, I find his facts to be often not such, especially when some atmospheric touch depends on them; his snide caricature of Shawn to be a persona (convenient for his purpose) rather than the real person I know; his evaluation of the magazine to be hung on a statistical gimmick it would be courteous to call flimsy; his research such as it is wouldn’t get by the editor of a high-school yearbook; and his ignorance of The New Yorker’s present and past—he thinks Ross was trying to imitate Punch—remarkable even for a Doctor of American Studies turned parajournalist.

Somehow Tom Wolfe has managed to miss a target broad enough to have profited by some sensible criticism. He has also revealed the ugly side of parajournalism when it tries to be serious: to deal with a forty-year run of a weekly magazine and to fabricate a persona without the collaboration of the person involved. What with his own reading block and Shawn’s refusal to be interviewed—his privilege, I should think, perhaps even his constitutional right, cf., Justice Brandeis on “the right to privacy”—Wolfe was reduced to speculations on the nature of the magazine and its editor. These are sometimes plausible, sometimes not, but they always fit into a pattern that has been determined in advance of the evidence, like Victorian melodrama or the political tracts we used to get from Germany and Russia in the Thirties.3 It is not surprising that Wolfe got away with it, making an instant reputation as a rebel and bad man which didn’t do any harm to his book later. The first resource of a parajournalist is that his audience knows even less than he does—and it was a bold, slashing attack on a sacred cow, an Institution, The Establishment. That fellow Wolfe, he really gave it to The New Yorker! David and Goliath. It’s hard for the class-mass audience to see that, today, Goliath is sometimes the good guy. He’s so much less entertaining than David.

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    Wolfe unaccountably missed Christina Paolozzi, a young Italian noblewoman who achieved celebdom by no more complicated strategy than stripping to the waist and allowing Harper’s Bazaar to photograph her, from the front. But Gay Talese, an Esquire alumnus who now parajournalizes mostly in the Times—in a more dignified way, of course includes her in his recent collection, The Overreachers (Harper & Row, $3.95) along with Joshua Logan, Floyd Patterson, Peter O’Toole, Frank Costello, e tutti quanti.

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    Infarcted” sums up Wolfe’s stance: “Pathol. a circumscribed portion of tissue which has been suddenly deprived of its blood supply by embolism or thrombosis and which, as a result, is undergoing death (necrosis), to be replaced by scar tissue.” Necrosis! Scar tissue! Santa Barranza! Eeeeeeeeeee!

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    These are generalizations and parajournalism, which thrives on generalization. cannot be understood unless it is examined in specific detail. For such an examination of Tom Wolfe’s New Yorker Caper see my analysis of his technique, from boldly asserted unfacts to rhetorically insinuated untruths, in a forthcoming issue of this paper.

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