The title piece in Tom Wolfe’s latest collection looks back jeeringly, from a not very distant tomorrow, on today’s American costumes, affluence, and linguistic, intellectual, and sexual behavior. There’s an account of the life of the “average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman”—“a life that would have made the Sun King blink”:
He spent his vacations in Puerto Vallarta, Barbados, or St. Kitts. Before dinner he would be out on the terrace of some resort hotel with his third wife, wearing his Ricky Martin cane-cutter shirt open down to the sternum, the better to allow his gold chains to twinkle in his chest hairs. The two of them would have just ordered a round of Quibel sparkling water, from the state of West Virginia, because by 2000 the once-favored European sparkling waters Perrier and San Pellegrino seemed so tacky.
A page or so later we’re at the entrance of “one of the forty-two Good Buildings” on Manhattan’s East Side. The doorman, dressed “like an Austrian Army colonel from the year 1870,” holds the door for a “wan white boy,” “teenage scion of an investment-banking family.” The lad wears
a baseball cap sideways; an outsized T-shirt, whose short sleeves fall below his elbows and whose tail hangs down over his hips; baggy cargo pants with flapped pockets running down the legs and a crotch hanging below his knees, and yards of material pooling about his ankles, all but obscuring the Lugz sneakers.
Elsewhere in Hooking Up there are notes on casual contemporary coupling in high school hallways, with attention to related Oval Office sport:
Thirteen- and fourteen-year-old girls were getting down on their knees and fellating boys in corridors and stairwells during the two- minute break between classes…. In the year 2000, boys and girls did not consider fellatio to be a truly sexual act, any more than tonsil hockey. It was just “fooling around.” The President of the United States at the time used to have a twenty-two-year-old girl, an unpaid volunteer in the presidential palace, the White House, come around to his office for fellatio.
In other pieces in this collection books and ideas as well as manners surface—but they rarely lead away from the present. The culture of Intel is probed, and the invention of the Internet, and the leading concepts of sociobiology and neuroscience. The author hails E.O. Wilson’s Consilience (1998) and, in a piece entitled “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died,” extols brain imaging. (“If I were a college student, today,” says Wolfe, “I don’t think I could resist going into neuroscience.”) He reports on a squabble in academe between “traditional humanists” (the National Association of Scholars) and Stanley Fish, Judith Butler, et alia. There’s a lively counterattack on the writers—Updike, Mailer, and Irving—who savaged Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full (1998), plus a seventy-page novella detailing a sting operation, by a 60 Minutes–style TV producer, on three US Army combat …