Imprisoned in the Sixties

Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine

by Tom Wolfe
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 243 pp., $8.95

Winners and Losers: Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses and Ruins from a Long War

by Gloria Emerson
Random House, 406 pp., $10.95

The Vietnam war returns in these books, not to haunt us but to amuse. Everyone who touches that war gets tarbabyized by it. Gloria Emerson manages to trivialize by her very concern. She feels it her duty to be outraged that a perfume is now called Charlie—once the Americans’ nickname for the Viet Cong. Wolfe celebrates America’s flyers over Vietnam in a long piece on “Jousting with Sam and Charlie.” The “Sam” of that title, a snaky missile seeking out the airplanes’ animal heat, makes dramatic appearances in Wolfe’s prose. But “Charlie” never does show up. These books are unconsciously aimed at each other; and both miss the target. They remind me of a “Doonesbury” strip from the war days. Phred the Terrorist is screaming up at the bomber pilots, calling them vicious monsters. Mean-while, in the clouds, Americans rehash the latest Knicks game.

Emerson’s book crawls along with Phred, from splutter to splutter, attributing every kind of malice to the colonizers, unable to understand that the war machine worked automatically, without malice, with a dutiful attention to technique. Wolfe’s prose soars with appropriate skill and moral obtuseness. You would never know from this chronicle of battle with the SAMS that his flyers risked death in order to deal it.

Wolfe made his mark by celebrating the wacky styles of the Sixties. Some who admired that aspect of his work were dismayed when they found, late in the game, that this stylistic radical was also a right-winger. They felt much as admirers of early Waugh or Eliot did, when they learned that Vile Bodies and The Waste Land were meant to speak not for this century but against it. Yet Wolfe is no Waugh or Eliot. They were recognizably “conservative” by almost any thoughtful definition. Wolfe is that American kind of “conservative” who is in love with change and all the explosive powers of capitalism. He does not resemble the Waugh who pictured modern life as a speeding race car out of control, but the William Buckley who established God’s existence, in a recent essay, from the intricate gadgetry on his yacht. Wolfe’s love of style is like Goldwater’s love of gadgets as the ornaments and trophies of capitalism.

Wolfe celebrated the Sixties as “a happiness explosion” caused by an economy that “has pumped money into every class level of the population on a scale without parallel in any country in history.” The poor are as invisible to Wolfe as Charlie was to the pilots. When Michael Harrington reminds us that there still are poor people, Wolfe uses his customary tactic of dismissal, the invention of a spurious new category—in this case the Adjectival Catch Up: “We have relative poverty (Michael Harrington’s great Adjectival Catch Up of 1963).” Wolfe is always discovering some new social phenomenon for which he must invent, on the spot, a new social law. He likes to predict what “historians will say” about us. Flying so …

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