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 veterans guilty of homophobic murder.
Yesterday has a walk-on in the closing section—two pieces on The New Yorker and William Shawn first published thirty-five years ago. But the book scurries back into the present at the end, to comment on more recent portraits of the Shawn and post-Shawn eras—Lillian Ross’s Here But Not Here (1998) and Renata Adler’s Gone (2000). Approaching his seventieth year, Tom Wolfe stands forth, rather more unrelentingly even than in his past, as a committed specialist in Now.
In writers who possess large talent and energy—Wolfe has both—presentmindedness and observational intensity often conjoin to produce insight as well as amusement. Any competent catalog-copy hack can detail the “features” of a wan white boy’s cargo pants—but those yards of material “pooling” around the teenage ankles in Hooking Up point suggestively to a defiantly mindless, diaper-pining dishevelment; they attest that a writer’s spirited concentration on contemporary surface and circumstance can pay off.
Certainly it pays off in the pieces about The New Yorker and William Shawn that elevated Wolfe to notoriety. Not sight but sound—better, a relative absence of sound—turns up the observational wattage in these reports. In the mid-Sixties, at firsthand or otherwise, Wolfe noticed the quiet of the magazine’s corridors and cubicles; absent a bulging file of other facts about the place, he built an edifice on the quality of the whispering, and arrived thereby at an intimation of the deepening piety, the nearly choking hush, of The New Yorker’s pre–Tina Brown self-reverence. Attentiveness and rudeness fused to produce perspicacity.
As for the style Wolfe contrived for chronicling cultural news: it clearly served both his own irreverence and the larger cause of immediacy—and it transformed the journalistic palette. Among Now-specialists the assumption came to be—witness the front page of any issue of The New York Observer or any “style” page of The New York Times—that if the object in view really is distinctively new and of the moment, its presentation requires unique lingo, rhythm, exclamation. The features of the style visible in Hooking Up include in medias res openings and bullying italics (“Omertà! Sealed lips! Sealed lips, ladies and gentlemen!”), saturation bombing by brand names (Lugz sneakers, Quibel sparkling water, etc.), and fashion page gush (“Hottest fields in science”…”hottest field in the academic world”…”hottest and most intensely rational young scientists”). Smacking readers in their dozing eyes, the idiom pushes the cultural beat implacably but entertainingly, and does nobody irreparable harm.
Still, unrelenting present-mindedness can create problems. The minor problems in Hooking Up include excessive confidence that “hot” status details are an adequate substitute for penetration of character and moral dilemma, and credulousness regarding whatever mode of “scientific” intellection is advertised as the latest. The major problem is declining proficiency in distinguishing the counterfeit from the real.
No small measure of Wolfe’s readability as a novelist depends on his gift for producing fast-paced scenes of confrontation between figures fighting for place in American big-money hierarchies—witness the scrap, in A Man in Full, between the tycoon Charlie Croker and Harry Zale, a fiercely adamant Real Estate Asset Manager to whose bank Croker owes half a billion and change. It’s the remembered verve and fiery ole boy–Willie Stark diction of these scenes, together with Wolfe’s adeptness at choosing the slackest work of Updike-Mailer-Irving when illustrating their alleged remoteness from the “raw, raucous, lust-soaked rout” of America here and now, that lends his counterattack on his contemporaries initial credibility.
But the very obsession with status—the insistence on engaging that subject as though little of large significance lay beyond it—thins and lames Wolfe’s fictional characters and situations in The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and A Man in Full. And the obsession weakens Wolfe’s performances both as fiction writer and as critic in Hooking Up.
Setting up the standard in the book by which to knock down his perceived competitors, he argues that the key content of naturalistic fiction consists of
the notation of status details, the cues that tell people how they rank in the human pecking order, how they are doing in the struggle to maintain or improve their position in life or in an immediate situation, everything from clothing and furniture to accents, modes of treating superiors or inferiors, subtle gestures that show respect or disrespect—“dissing,” to use a marvelous new piece of late-twentieth-century slang—the entire complex of signals that tell the human beast whether it is succeeding or failing and has or hasn’t warded off that enemy of happiness that is more powerful than death: humiliation.
He holds, further, that the greatness of great novels has to do with shrewdness about social gradation (Anna Karenina becomes “Tolstoy’s incomparable symphony of status concerns, status competition, and class guilt within Russia’s upper orders”). The weakness of weak novels—John Irving’s A Widow for One Year (1996), for one—is their preoccupation with people “encapsulated in their neurasthenia”: people who, as they drive through a seaside Long Island town, refuse to “take a look, just one look, at a $125,000 show-circuit hunter pony in the pasture over there at the Topping Riding School.” Further still, Wolfe contends that a prime disadvantage of movies is their inability to render “status details”: “When it comes time to deal with social gradations, [movies] are immediately reduced to gross effects likely to lapse into caricature at any moment: the house that is too grand or too dreadful, the accent that is too snobbish or too crude.”
A view of Anna Karenina that sees mainly status concerns—forget anguish about moral disorder, broken vows, lost darlings—isn’t a lot less blinkered than a gaze held oblivious of a six-figure show pony in Sagaponack. But Wolfe is on a reductive tear, uninterested in qualifications and counterpositions. He moves directly from anatomizing Updike’s and Mailer’s obliviousness to social fact to a swatch of his own fiction, “Ambush at Fort Bragg,” as though assured that it will back up the argument—and the piece fails him.
The theme of status does indeed dominate its pages—but so also do stereotypes and glibly bypassed moral dilemmas. In “Ambush at Fort Bragg,” Irv Durtscher, the point-of-view character, is a TV news producer and director who’s unhinged by jealousy of his show’s star interviewer. Irv can’t bear his own obscurity:
Suppose [Irv thinks] he hit the jackpot. Suppose the three [homophobic] soldiers hung themselves on that videotape. Who would get the credit? All the newspaper stories, the editorials, the Op Ed pieces, all the pronouncements by the politicians, all the letters from the viewers, would talk about this big, gross, aging blonde sitting up in this chair with her regal posture as if she actually ran the show. All anybody would talk about would be Mary Cary Brokenborough [the star interviewer].
The tale harps ceaselessly on Irv Durtscher’s bitterness:
Why couldn’t he come on at the very beginning of the program, the way Rod Serling used to in The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock used to in Alfred Hitchcock Presents? Yeah, Hitchcock …Hitchcock was just as short, round, and bald as he was. More so. He could see it now… The titles come on…The theme …but then he lost heart. They’d never go for it. On top of everything else, he looked too…ethnic. You could be Jewish and still be a star in television news, an anchorman or whatever, as long as you didn’t seem Jewish.
The climax of the novella is an explosion of rage—Durtscher’s rage at the star interviewer’s mate, an eye surgeon guilty of taking an upstaging emergency beeper call during an advance showing of the sting footage:
That son of a bitch! Him and his Dr. Daring stage whisper! Corneal- scleral laceration—meeeeeyhah! Probably beeped himself and then faked the call! A pathetic failure at the dinner table who couldn’t even pick up, much less carry, his end of the conversation—and so now he has to try to steal the scene by playing Emergency Medical Hero during the very climax of his own wife’s triumph—as orchestrated by me, Irv Durtscher! Why, that ice-sculptured son—of—a—bitch!
Implicit in the characterization—as in those of many of the city detectives, black activists, rich women, and assorted Masters of the Universe in Wolfe’s other fiction—is impatience with the tugs of appetite, conscience, self-distrust, and the rest that loosen stereotypes and sharpen the sense of intimacy, in readers, with literary characters and their psychosocial crises. And one element in that impatience is, as I say, the conviction of the decisive influence of current position on the status ladder—hot status detail. My self and the truth of my moral situation at any given hour equals the sum of my resentments.
The celebrations in Hooking Up of sociobiology and brain-imaging neuroscience are interesting partly because their view of human innerness as Wolfe represents it—namely, innerness is a myth—chimes with the view embodied in Wolfe’s characterizations. In passages marked by strong leanings toward determinism and misanthropy, the writer makes clear that he prizes the new disciplines for their lack of sanctimony about “our own precious inner selves”—their freedom from solemnity regarding individual responses and aspirations:
Since consciousness and thought are entirely physical products of your brain and nervous system—and since your brain arrived fully imprinted at birth—what makes you think you have free will? Where is it going to come from?… I doubt that any Calvinist of the sixteenth century ever believed so completely in predestination as these, the…most intensely rational young scientists in the United States in the twenty-first.
Wolfe announces that “I love talking to these people [the young scientists]—they express an uncompromising determinism.” Just ahead, he predicts, lies a time when everybody will believe that “this ghost in the machine, ‘the self,’ does not even exist and brain imaging proves it, once and for all.” After the coming sociobiological triumph, “all knowledge of living things will converge… under the umbrella of biology. All mental activity, from using allometry to enjoying music, will be understood in biological terms.” Quoting E.O. Wilson, Wolfe adds: “The humanities and social sciences would ‘shrink to specialized branches of biology.’ Such venerable disciplines as history, biography, and the novel would become ‘the research protocols,’ i.e., preliminary reports of the study of human evolution.” Farewell characters, flat or round.
But it’s the conduct, not the substance, of the argument about sociobiology, happy dispatcher of “precious inner selves,” that’s symptomatic. Having anointed E.O. Wilson as “Darwin II” in a piece called “Digibabble, Fairy Dust, and the Human Anthill,” having saluted Wilson’s Consilience, with small-boy glee, as “a stick in the eye of every novelist, every historian, every biographer, every social scientist—every intellectual of any stripe, come to think of it,” Wolfe, in the following piece, “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died,” sticks it to Wilson himself—by suggesting that this “terribly polite, terribly reserved” Alabamian is nearing obsolescence. Cheers for sociobiology and neuroscience now give way, in short, to a faster-breaking story—news that an “Ultimate Skepticism” about these disciplines and indeed of all else in science has begun mounting among scientists:
Over the past two years even Dar-winism, a sacred tenet among American scientists for the past seventy years, has been beset by… doubts. Scientists—not religiosi—…have begun attacking Darwinism as a mere theory, not a scientific discovery, a theory woefully unsupported by fossil evidence and featuring, at the core of its logic, sheer mush…. The scorn the new breed [of Ultimately Skeptical young physicists] heaps upon quantum mechanics (“has no real-world applications”…”depends entirely on goofball equations”), Unified Field Theory (“Nobel worm bait”), and the Big Bang Theory (“creationism for nerds”) has become withering. If only Nietzsche were alive! He would have relished every minute of it!
A comparable catch-the-curve impulse—also recognizable as plain fickleness—figures in Wolfe’s decision to present himself in Hooking Up as an enthusiast of life reduced by science to theory, abstraction, predictable formula. Once “every action and reaction of the human brain has been calibrated and made manifest [by neuroscience] in predictable statistical formulas,” he writes, we’ll be able to
dial up the same formulas and information and diagnose the effect that any illustration, any commercial, any speech, any flirtation, any bill, any coo has been crafted to produce….
Something tells me, mere research protocol drudge though I may be, that I will love it all, cherish it all, press it to my bosom.
In yesteryear those who tried to reduce experience, “vision,” and “evocation” to formula infuriated Wolfe. He attacked critics and painters whose theories yielded only “an abstraction of an abstraction, a blueprint of the blueprint, diagram of the diagram,” and denounced the alleged philosophy of Abstract Expressionism everywhere in The Painted Word (1975):
No more realism, no more representational objects, no more lines, colors, forms, and contours, no more pigments, no more brush strokes, no more evocations…. Art…came out the other side as Art Theory! Art Theory pure and simple, words on a page, literature, undefiled by vision, flat, flatter, Flattest….
The impression of push-the-beat swerving, role to role, view to view, is sharpened elsewhere in Hooking Up by a variety of passages in which Wolfe (who by report is finishing a novel about academe) plays pop lecturer, spieling “dazzling” rubbish about the past:
The nineteenth century began with the American and French Revolutions of the late eighteenth. The twentieth century began with the formulation of Marxism, Freudianism, and Modernism in the late nineteenth. And the twenty-first began with the Great Relearning—in the form of the destruction of the Berlin Wall in a single day, dramatizing the utter failure of the most momentous start-from-zero of all.
Even his lively answer to the strictures of Updike and Mailer loses its way, straying from the aesthetics of naturalism to current market and gym standards, as Wolfe taunts his enemies for poor sales and failing health (Updike has an “aging bladder,” Mailer “support[s] himself with two canes, one for each rusted-out hip”).
The tyranny of Now allows small space to resisters. Yet this writer is capable of resistance. Moments in his career have been marked by sustained responsiveness to the genuine—most memorable of them the moment that produced The Right Stuff (1979), Wolfe’s report on the astronauts. And some continuities exist between that book and his current work. The hero-worshipping impulse that powered The Right Stuff is in evidence no less in the sketches of the Intel founder and of E.O. Wilson in Hooking Up than in the portraits of rich, hard-driving men “in full” in his novels. The eye for costume that studied the pooling cargo pants (and that leads Wolfe to enjoy chatting with talk show hosts about his thirty-two white suits) is the same eye that lingered long and pleasurably on the “stylish” bridge coats worn by heroic navy officers to the funerals of fellow heroes burned to cinders in crashes (“big beautiful belly-cut collar and lapels, deep turnbacks on the sleeves, a tailored waist…”).
The discontinuities, however, warrant more attention. The Right Stuff is shot through with episodes that talk back eloquently to brand-name/status culture. There’s splendid fury in John Glenn’s voice when he learns—for one example—that officialdom is harassing his wife Annie, a stutterer, trying to force her to do interviews in the couple’s house with LBJ and the networks. Glenn calls his wife, tells her he’s on her side “all the way, one hundred percent”—not to let Lyndon Johnson or any of the rest of them “put so much as one toe inside our house!” The subject in view is the pure proud solidarity of lifetime mates and Wolfe does it justice. The same holds for his book’s treatment of heroic codes. The pilots in The Right Stuff possess little—pittance pay and a thousand square feet or so of shelter for wife and child—and endure by choice fearful peril day by day. The finely disciplined asceticism of the group as a whole, together with the feelings of joint moral responsibility to the confraternity of the brave, might well have stirred Conrad himself; Wolfe’s high admiration, persuasively bestowed, bespeaks a sense of the worthy which, when the book appeared, seemed likely to serve him in the future.
But recall the hour: the tide that lifts all boats was rising. Lawyers going broke on a million a year, private jets hung with pricey paintings, layer upon layer of fascinations: Lugz upon Air Jordan, Quibel upon Pellegrino, Dr. Hot-Ticket upon Dr. Wilson, late Wolfe upon early Wolfe, merger mania, whirling dot-coms, Jacuzzis in every pot, gold chains on every electrician, values by the dozen shelved with merciless sell-by dates… Until the eve of the Eighties, apparently, one could hope—as long as one stayed ahead of the curve—to recognize and speak up for the genuine when it emerged. But the Reagan Era brought a famous proliferation of wrong stuff—irresistible attractions—and it became harder for the Now-specialist to see beyond the pony.
February 8, 2001