Lamentation for Tom Wolfe
A young Tom Wolfe in New York, via Time
A number of people have asked me whether I’ve read, or plan to read, Tom Wolfe’s new novel Back to Blood. The answer is No. (I see Rod gave it a try but abandoned it.) I read Bonfire of the Vanities when it came out, with little pleasure, and started but could not finish A Man in Full. The problem was simply this: they were novels. And Tom Wolfe wasn’t put here on earth to write novels.
Or perhaps I should say that the problem was that they weren’t novels: they were products of Wolfe’s titanic commitment to investigation, observation, and research, only covered with a thin, a very thin, fictional veneer. And the veneer just gets in the way of Wolfe’s gifts — or so it seems to me.
As I read Bonfire of the Vanities all I could think about was how desperately I wished for a Tom Wolfe book — a nonfictional book, a reported book — about Wall Street and its place in the larger culture of New York City, complete with Wolfe’s incisively manic takes on a vast cast of real-life people. Because that’s what he does better than anyone. There were very few narratives written by Americans in the twentieth century better than The Right Stuff, and so much of the genius of that book came from its exploration of people we knew — or thought we knew. (I offer a few words in praise of that book here.)
Similarly, how great would it have been to have, instead of I Am Charlotte Simmons, a hefty and comical survey of the transformations, in the past fifty years, of American higher education? Tom Wolfe doing for the American university what he had done for the space program? — That would have been amazing.
As an essayist and long-time advocate for the essay, I get frustrated when immensely gifted writers of nonfiction think they have to turn to fiction in order to gain recognition as capital-A Authors. One of the best essayists of the twentieth century, Annie Dillard, just had to write two novels, even though that genre was certainly not where her gifts lay. I even think that Walker Percy was far, far better as an essayist than as a novelist: I would trade all his fiction for the essays in The Message in the Bottle. And the very best of his books, Lost in the Cosmos, is a wildly funny and diagnostically brilliant mélange of fiction and essay. But I can’t blame Percy for focusing on fiction: that’s where the money and the prestige were.
I can’t blame him, but I can regret his decision — just as I regret Tom Wolfe’s abandonment of the kind of writing that he did better than anyone alive for a genre to which his gifts are poorly suited and in which he cannot be fully successful. But you know, if someone offered me a seven million dollar advance to write a novel — which is what Wolfe reportedly got for Back to Blood — a novel is exactly what I’d write.