Tom Wolfe’s Tribalist America
Tom Wolfe in person was rather subdued, even bland. I remember feeling oddly crestfallen when I discovered this, that the writer who had so long enchanted me on the page wasn’t a drawling troublemaker like Hunter S. Thompson or a puckish raconteur like Gore Vidal. Indeed, Wolfe’s personality may have been the only quiet thing about him, a contrast with his hair-on-fire prose, the 60s cultural geysers erupting around him, even his trademark white suit.
Yet how else should he have been? Wolfe, whose death this week left our literary scene all the hollower, is known today for his novels. But first and foremost he was the finest reporter of his generation, with an ear for dialectical precision and an eye for aesthetic nuance, none of which would have registered had he preferred to talk rather than listen, to flaunt rather than observe. Trained as a newspaper man, inspired by realists like Dickens and naturalists like Zola, he made a career first out of experimenting with feature reporting—which he eventually elevated into a literary style he called New Journalism—and then applying that to fiction. An indefatigable witness to the human condition, he ventured constantly to the places he sought to portray and skewered other novelists—among them John Updike and John Irving—whom he saw as succumbing to the entropy of the office. He called for intrepid writers who would, as he put it in his essay Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast, “head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping, Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property.” In an age when impactful cultural melees like the one at Charlottesville are covered largely by spot reporters photosynthesizing in front of computer screens hundreds of miles away, that call is more relevant than ever.
It wasn’t just the meticulous research that distinguished Wolfe, but his contagious style, which has unconsciously slipped into the prose of many an admiring young writer. Wolfe alone could do Wolfe—that much was clear—yet his madcap way with words is essential study for anyone who wants to become an effective stylist. In high school, too many students are initiated into the cult of Strunk and White, those dread lords of awful writing who, were there justice in this world, would be put on trial for crimes against the language before some sort of writerly tribunal. Wolfe is the antidote to all that because he gleefully and methodically breaks every one of their dreary rules. His sentences slalom along through run-on clauses, fragments, dialects, slang, brand names, onomatopoeia, archaisms, alliterations, exclamation points, italics, neologisms. What English 101 builds up, Wolfe dynamites down, allowing one to reconstruct the debris into original style.
To Wolfe, a group of kids eating snacks in San Francisco City Hall was a “childstorm” that filled “the very air with a hurricane of malted milk, an orange blizzard of crushed ice from the Slurpees, with acid red horrors like the red from the taffy apples and the jelly from the jelly doughnuts, with globs of ice cream in purple sheets of root beer, with plastic straws and huge bilious waxed cups and punch cans and sprinkles of Winkles, and with mustard from off the hot dogs and little lettuce shreds from off the tacos, with things that splash and things that plop and things that ooze and stick….” The emaciated women of Manhattan high life were “social X-Rays,” the sarcasm-laden banter of college students was classified on a scale from “Sarc I” to “Sarc III,” and a passing fleet of custom cars meant “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm).” This style, manic and contortionist, was ideal for 1960s romps like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, where most of Wolfe’s subjects were high on acid, but it also worked surprisingly well in The Bonfire of the Vanities, where his characters’ constant need to maintain class status results in plenty of hysterical angst.
Bonfire is probably Wolfe’s best work; it’s certainly the finest novel about New York City ever written. But it’s the underrated I Am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe’s study of the modern university campus, that stands out for me. It was pilloried, not wrongly, by critics for its overreliance on stock characters and rush job of an ending. Yet Charlotte is also Wolfe’s most universal novel and for that reason his most familiar, full of little pinpricks of recognition for anyone who attended a stay-away college. Wolfe wrote it after four years of observing frat parties and sports tailgates, and the result is an alarming typhoon of sex and degradation, all seen through the eyes of a doe-eyed freshman from the hinterlands of North Carolina. In particular, the slow-burning set piece towards the end, which sees the heretofore awkward Charlotte pregame too much vodka and cozy up to frat-boy heel Hoyt Thorpe—while the reader simultaneously rejoices over her social acceptance and dreads the loss of her virginity he knows is coming—is impossible to look away from. And Charlotte’s aftermath of shame and depression is wrenching enough to make anyone reassess their own good times at college.
As all that might suggest, Wolfe was a man of the right. I say that not in the aspirational way that some conservatives claim South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (“they make fun of liberals, so they must be one of us!”) but as a matter-of-fact descriptor of his politics. Not only did he find ample subject matter in the pathologies of 60s leftism, he railed against communists and radicals, wrote for the American Spectator, favorably blurbed Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism, and even had kind words for George W. Bush. This, I think, was both a genuine expression of his Southern upbringing and a celebration of Kingsley Amis’s dictum “if you can’t annoy somebody, there is little point in writing.” Wolfe was, to culturally appropriate Churchill, in the New York establishment but not of it, and he relished nothing more than poking its eminences in the eyes. As he put it, “I cannot stand the lockstep among everyone in my particular world. They all do the same thing without variation. It gets so boring. There is something in me that particularly wants it registered that I am not one of them.”
The eminences hit back on occasion. John Updike called Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full “not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form,” while John Irving denounced the Wolfean style as “yak.” Christopher Hitchens, who had a limited respect for Wolfe, nevertheless declared: “There has probably never been a less prescient journo-novel than The Bonfire of the Vanities.” On that, at least, he had a point. Bonfire, which mixed together the dollar-chasing louts of opulent Park Avenue and the black underclass of the Bronx—just add vinegar—presaged a New York doomed to racial and class warfare. Whereas the city at the time of Hitchens’ writing was turning into a glorified daycare center, as Rudy Giuliani’s war on jaywalkers begat Michael Bloomberg’s war on canned soup. Crime was down, order was in, and the authorities had turned from the big to the trivial. Wolfe, it seemed, had gotten it wrong. That dovetails into another critique of Wolfe, which is that, rather than assess a college campus independently from Atlanta independently from New York, he applied the Bonfire model across the board, a sort of one-size-fits-all right-wing identity politics that sees different demographics as irreconcilable, whether rich and poor, blacks and whites, frat boys and nerds.
That lens may have proven distorted in New York, but position it over present-day America and it suddenly seems less smudged. Wolfe’s understanding of humanity was primarily tribal: people take on the customs and prejudices of the groups they belong to and clash with those they don’t. Hence why his characters are often accused of being universals rather than particulars. Hence, too, why his final (and weakest) novel, Back to Blood, was set in Miami and covered the tensions engendered by mass immigration. Contra Hitchens, what could be more prescient than that? In Back to Blood, the Cuban-American mayor of Miami tells the African-American police chief: “I mean we can’t mix them together, but we can forge a secure place for each nationality, each ethnic group, each race, and make sure they’re on the same level plane.” Is this our destiny, an America of subgroups that never quite melt into the pot? Are we doomed for more conflagration a la Charlottesville? Or is the liberal multicultural dream still possible, even desirable? That we’re even asking these questions suggests Wolfe has been vindicated more than his critics allow.
Ultimately, the only way we’ll get the answers is if we trouble to embark into this America of ours, sneakers laced, notebook paper crinkling in the breeze, lush phrases turning in our minds, determined to confront the weirdness in our backyard and chronicle it in a way that is—saints preserve us!—fun to read. Tom Wolfe’s work is ours now. May he rest in peace.
Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.