James Wolcott is the cultural critic for Vanity Fair.

Southern Discomfort

After the coyote calls of Ray and The Tennis Handsome, Barry Hannah is carrying a more mellow tune in his new collection of stories, Captain Maximus. He seems to be bent over Wallace Stevens’s blue guitar, admiring his hands of rough leather as they strike “his living hi and ho.” …

Honest Floozies

For two decades the Rolling Stones have sprawled across the sofa, bored and surly, their laps warmed by debutantes and groupies, their bloodstreams roughed up with drugs. If the Beatles have been embossed in legend as the merry ambassadors of Mod (brushed bangs and boot shine), the Stones have been …

The Secret Sharers

With The Little Drummer Girl, John le Carré has thrown off his winter cloak and let his limbs flex. Unlike the Smiley novels, which have a burrowing, circumspect determination, The Little Drummer Girl doesn’t read as if it were written with mittens. The book feels as if it were dashed …

Tom Wolfe’s Greatest Hits

Not since Garry Wills uncorked his rather fanciful notions on the origins of the cold war in the opening pages of Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time has a book been so fatefully torpedoed by its own introduction. Subtitled “A Reader,” The Purple Decades presents an ample selection of Tom Wolfe’s writings …

R.I.P.

For a brief spell in the mid-Sixties, Edie Sedgwick was the debutante princess of piss-elegance, an Andy Warhol “superstar” whose fashion trademark was a snowy white mink draped over a dimestore t-shirt. Edie was always abuzz with debbie enthusiasm—as Warhol himself put it, even when she was asleep, her hands …

Straw Dogs

When Lao-tse wrote that “the sage is ruthless and treats the people as straw dogs,” he provided an epigraph for the cruel frivolities of John Hawkes’s and John Barth’s latest fiction, in which the hapless characters are raped, carved up, burned with cigarettes, bestialized. Characteristically, Hawkes’s novel is a solemn, …

More Kicks than Pricks

Writers stung by criticism are seldom shy about retaliating. Hardly a month slips by without some disgruntled author coughing into his fist on “The Dick Cavett Show” and denouncing critics as whores, leeches, or—that old wheeze—eunuchs (invariably: “They like to watch because they themselves can’t Do It”). Other epithets are …

Brave New World

Not long after the Sex Pistols told the Queen of England to sod off in their 1977 single “God Save the Queen,” a spate of punk novels began to appear—novels featuring sneer-lipped punks in slashed clothing who pogoed in sweaty, packed clubs, engaged in knife play, and collapsed on all …

Striking Out

Even before the players packed up their gloves and blow-dryers and trooped morosely home, the 1981 baseball season had turned into a punishing scrape of ill feeling and bad nerves. Despite a spirited bolt from the gate by Billy Martin’s Oakland A’s, despite the phenomenal pitching of Dodger rookie Fernando …

Sailors Have More Fun

Never kiss off a wooing author, that’s the lesson of Alexander Theroux’s sly and resourceful new novel, Darconville’s Cat. Dressed in pious black, a twenty-nine-year-old academic princeling named Alaric Darconville hauntingly wanders about the campus of Virginia’s Quinsy College, a romantic apparition out of the pages of Hawthorne or Washington …

On the Beat

Even in repose, Clive James gives off an industrious hum as he gears up for the next deadline, the next dispatch from Hollywood, Rome, Manhattan. Born in Australia and living in London, James is a journalist who is capable of knocking off several hundred entertaining words on everything from a …

Who Needs Enemies?

“Go, and never darken my towels again!” cried Groucho Marx, showing a pushy nuisance the door. In moments of agitation and dismay, Saul Bellow must have longed to issue the same order to his would-be biographer Mark Harris, for the evidence of Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck suggests that subtle hints …

Tiny Coffins

Unsightly hair seems to give Truman Capote the shudders. One of Holly Golightly’s hangers-on in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was depicted as a pushy, vulgar hobbit. “Tufts of hair sprouted from his ears, from his nose; his jowls were gray with afternoon beard, and his handshake almost furry.” In “Mojave,” a …

Kvetchy But Unbowed

Mordecai Richler’s characters could never be convicted of loitering. After scuffling away their boyhoods on Montreal’s St. Urbain Street—scratching obscenities into the walls of drugstore phone booths, lusting after girls who shoot by, cradling schoolbooks against their pert breasts—Richler’s working-class Jews are catapulted into a sea of hostile goys, who …

Life Among the Ninnies

Art teaches us how to levitate, Anaïs Nin was fond of saying, and in Volume Seven of Nin’s Diary her toes seldom touch earth. It isn’t art that’s keeping her aloft, however, it’s fame, favorable reviews, rapt adoration. Volume Seven covers the final years of Nin’s life, as she emerges …

In Like Flynn

Stamped across Errol Flynn’s face on the cover of Errol Flynn: The Untold Story is a large red swastika. Inside, the author Charles Higham is visited by Flynn’s ghost, who congratulates him for slashing through a curtain of lies. “You know what?” says Flynn’s ghost in the prologue. “I don’t …

Some Fun!

Like a sentry or a detective, Anne Tyler seems to notice everything: the pale fluorescent gloom of laundromats, pockets filled with lint-covered jellybeans, the smell of crabcakes and coconut oil on a Delaware beach, grapy veins in the calves of middle-aged mothers. As a chronicler of domestic fuss, Tyler can …

Lightly Toasted

Laughter, soft light, the rustle of napkins: Kenneth Tynan’s collection of New Yorker profile-essays is a posh affair, a cork-popping evening spent in the company of the famous and the famously forgotten. In a perplexing foreword, Tynan says that in recent years “essay” has become an odious world. in certain …

Mod Apostle

One by one, God snuffs the stars. The light fades from the firmament (reports Kurt Vonnegut in his novels), life on earth becomes a sad carnival, with geeks, clowns, and chimpanzees slogging forlornly through the scattered hay. Citizens are robots, machines; and in Slapstick the Chief Executive is a sedated …

TV Guide

Weighing in at over five pounds, Jeff Greenfield’s Television: The First Fifty Years is a huge slab of a book, ugly and sumptuous. Other efforts have been made to honor the kaleidoscopic complexities of TV—e.g., How Sweet It Was, by Arthur Shulman and Roger Youman, TV Book, edited by Judy …