The Pump House Gang
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
Sometime during the early Sixties, trivia caught up with us all. Until then, informed awareness of the trifling or the grossly popular had been the mark of the young, hip anti-academics who, having been nurtured on comic books, soap operas, bad movies, and Orphan Annie code rings as well as the stuff of higher culture, grew up to insist that Captain Marvel and Charlie Parker were variations on The Hero with the Thousand Faces and, later, that Lenny Bruce was the most profound moral philosopher and Bob Dylan the best poet in America. After which serious people increasingly wrote seriously about popular art and style in both small and mass journals until, by the middle Sixties, we were well into a period of close analysis of junk.
Not that there is anything wrong with junk. Some of us have been immoderately addicted to it for years, remembering the words of countless popular songs, reading gossip columns and science fiction, knowing all about fashion, preferring neon to moonlight. But by now, everyone has been on to all that for quite a time and trivia has lost its cachet. It was only in the sidelong glance that gimcrackery was fun. Attend to it too much, and we see that less is less. Too bad! What new is new?
Not Tom Wolfe, certainly. Five years ago, he did appear startlingly contemporary and, at first look, original—the embodiment of the tone of Esquire and the Herald Tribune‘s New York magazine both of which were, for a brief span, the snappy popularizers of the new smart pop. Wolfe swooped across their pages juggling argot, italics, dots, comic strip explosions, and rhythms until he seemed like a three-headed seal spinning disks on all three noses while he danced on a ball beneath his feet. His writing was visually noisy, a mixed medium by itself, and, for the moment, the essential new journalism—more glittering than its subjects. His first collection of essays, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, nicely turned dross into gilt. He had a good ear for the speech of fools, a familiarity with their modes of life, and an audience which had come to believe that he was the future.
Now, three years later, Wolfe is back with two new books which run afoul of exactly that instant global communication he has so often celebrated. The Pump House Gang is a second collection of essays, most of which were written for New York, by then the magazine of the World Journal Tribune. In the two-year interval since the last of them appeared, much has changed and these essays seem shrunken, devitalized versions of themselves, much like New York magazine in its most recent incarnation as a thin, less prideful independent journal.
The phenomena which, in the old days, had set Wolfe to gasping are, today, either hopelessly familiar or already vanished: topless Carol Doda’s siliconeaugmented breasts; Hugh Hefner’s revolving bed; the film of toilet droppings shown at a fashionable party …