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Tom Wolfe


By Gregg J. Kilday

IN APRIL of 1965, the nation paused--just for a moment--it paused. A few months earlier it had begun to bomb North Vietnam, and a few months later it was to stumble reeling into Watts; but for one illusory moment history seemed to neither ebb nor flow. So the nation could afford to pause, pause to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the New Yorker.

New York, then the Sunday magazine of the New York Herald Tribune, commemmorated the event with something short of glorious exaltation. Instead, it published a two-art article by a young journalist with the pleasantly déjà-vu name of Tom Wolfe. The article was entitled "Tiny Mummies: The True Story of 43rd Street's Land of the Walking Dead." And, as they say back in the New Yorker's 43rd Street office, it became the talk of the town.

But enough of such genteel allusions! The renegade New Journalism had issued its Challenge! The old guard was quick to react. And so, in the case of the aforementioned Tom Wolfe, we offer a few character references. From Joseph Alsop, came the disclosure that Tom Wolfe was an agent of Ho Chi Minh and campus disorders. Simultaneously, Dwight MacDonald--one of the "walking dead" himself--saw affinities between Wolfe, Hitler, Joe McCarthy, and your run-of-the-mill kamikaze pilot. Finally, in an effort to eliminate superficial contradictions while injecting a needed sense of perspective, Walter Lippmann categorically declared: "Tom Wolfe is an ass!"

Which is to say, Wolfe, by attacking all that was good and holy in America--and, at the time, little but the New Yorker was--had become something of an enfant terrible who seemd to be puckishly plucking away at the nation's G-string. For besides needling the New Yorker, Wolfe was also a satorial scandal. In mid-winter he wore white suits, in summer, bright orange--all in a definitely pre-Krackerjackian era. And the people he wrote about! People like Baby Jane Holzer, Murray the K, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Junior Johnson--the very inhabitants of Confidential and Hot Rod who had usurped the right to dictate taste to a liberated, but defeated, nation, usurping that right from the likes of Alsop and MacDonald. Instantly, Wolfe himself became as notorious as the exhibits in his journalistic beastiary. He enjoyed the role, despite the fact that he had been handed a reputation he felt he hadn't really earned. "I used to try to keep out of sight, just so I wouldn't blow the act," he claims today.

SO, WHO is this man, Wolfe? The jacket of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby his first book of collected essays, carries with it a photo of Wolfe-as-impudent-baby--faced-cherub, a photo which seems to affirm the purported image. Yet, it bears little relation to the man today. Wolfe's features are those of one much older, an adult, in fact. They are sharply delineated as if fine pencil lines have been added to what had previously existed only as a rather rough cartoon. His hands are pale, they melt into his white suit. If it were not for his relaxed gestures, they might look like those of Uriah Heep. Although his hair--almost red--is moderately long, it too is very fine, almost thin. Wolfe's humor is casual, often offered only tentatively, yet with a certain understated assurance that it will be appreciated. But, at the root of it, it is his white suit, tie, and shoes--what he once wore as "a marvelous form of aggression with no real consequences"--that give him the air of a neophyte, though somewhat subdued, Mark Twain, rather than that of an Americanized Oscar Wilde.

At age 38, Wolfe wreaks havoc with the old, comfortable under/over thirty dichotomy. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test--published simultaneously last summer with The Pump House Gang, his second collection of essays--established Wolfe as the Boswell of acid beside Ken Kesey's Doctor Johnson. The book's ecstatic, exploding prose reads like the litany of a convert. Yet while he sees Kesey's Merry Pranksters as the hippie prototypes of an increasing search for religious experience in America, Wolfe himself felt no personality change during his contact with them. Unlike Mailer, Wolfe appears to have preserved the distinction between participant and reporter.

Nonetheless, his writing doesn't lack a sense of involvement and excitement--for Wolfe, writing parallels method acting. As a writer, he projects himself into the personalities of the characters he is describing, he records their sense of the world, trying to recapture "the trauma of the moment" as they experienced it. In this way, most of The Acid Test dips in and out of the consciousness of Kesey and his freaked-out disciples, and yet also manages to touch on many of the minds of the frightened and threatened in the old America--like the "unhip mama" with "the adrenal shriek: beat-nicks, bums, spades--dope."

Of course Wolfe must pay a price for such dexterity. Since every character he recreates speaks with an equal force, the author's particular vantage point remains frustratingly ambiguous. In only one section of The Acid Test--a digression on the Rat aesthetic of the Southwest--does Wolfe permit himself to be unequivocally "satirical." Most of the time, he is simply too busy loving what he criticizes to be really vindictive.

BORN IN Virginia, Wolfe describes his childhood as "growing up in the first drive-in era." In accepting that birthright, Wolfe echoes Vladimir Nabakov, who -- in repudiating charges of Lolita's anti-Americanism--wrote, "I needed a certain exhilerating milieu. Nothing is more exhilerating than philistine volgarity." It is thus appropriately ironic that Tom Wolfe started out with a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale. Later, while working as a reporter in Washington, he discovered poor tenement families eating dirt; in the story that followed, Wolfe cited a 19th century American book that discussed the same phenomenon. Today, he concludes: "Boy, when you're in a position to give an historical parallel for dirt-eating, they think you're a genius."

In 1956, Wolfe became a general reporter for the Springfield (Mass.) Union, leaving it two years later to become Latin American correspondent for the Washington Post. In Springfield, he relearned Lincoln Steffen's dictum that the cities are run on graft (and, now, its sophisticated offspring, urban renewal). In Haiti, he learned that "the real details"--like the fact that a Haitian minister was a pin-ball addict who had the tilt sign turned off whenever he played--were never reported. Back in Washington for a few months, he finally left for the Trib after "covering about my fourth sewer hearing." In '62, he joined the New York paper as a writer-illustrator, pleased to discover it had retained its old-fashioned, friendly newsroom with its twenties atmosphere.

Wolfe's personal breakthrough came a year later ("I don't mean for this to sound like 'I had a vision,'" he has written) when an Esquire editor removed the "Dear Byron" form a 49-page, free-flowing memo on custom cars that Wolfe had submitted. The memo, minus salutation but otherwise unedited, ran as "There Goes [Varoom! Varoom] That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby." Tom Wolfe had begun to deal with all that was extravagant and overpowering and vulgar in America on its own terms.

MACDONALD claimed Wolfe's style was all a sham. He called it "parajournalism--a bastard form, having it both ways, exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction." He could not accept Wolfe as PR man extraordinary, whose technique is to exaggerate--sometimes even to invent--fact in an effort to get at the truth. And, in certain cases, Wolfe has made notable gaffs--where the New Yorker study demanded the cruel precision of an Evelyn Waugh, Wolfe stuffed in the vitality of a Rabelais. As they have developed, however, Wolfe's essays have taken on a more structured approach (and he is now working on a reportorial novel), but he will always remain the great journalist of kitsch. He is the chronicler of modern America's myths, and myths have a tendency to go berserk--even as they are being told.

Wolfe characterizes his beat as the American, "statusphere." In his analysis, Marx has become meaningless when applied to this country. Class distinctions--along the old economic lines--are disappearing. Bikies in Columbus, gamblers in Las Vegas, surfers on the Coast, and nannies in New York are all busily creating their own subcultures. And they are writing their own standards of admission. Conspicuous eccentricity has come to replace conspicuous consumption. Entry into the new cults is often free. To cite just one example, "The kids who start the revolutions on campus are rebelling against the cliques they knew in high school--the athletes, the A-students," Wolfe theorizes. "At Berkeley, campus riots have replaced football. Now everyone makes the team."

But if Wolfe's manner is often blithe, his logic is usually chilling. For if his America does not first electrocute itself in some blinding burst of McLuhanesque energy, it will survive only to fragment itself into a bewildering array of esoteric subcultures. Technology is offering Americans a crude form of individuality combined with the possibility of commitment to the cults which will spring up. The only catch being the Cult is mutually exclusive of the life that surrounds it. Enter the Cult and you become disparaging and intolerant of the Outsiders. And so Wolfe's Americans--both in his essays and his cartoons--make their assault on the Cult of their choice with a frightening determination, at once both grim and fierce. What it all amounts to is a grand nervous breakdown on a nationwide scale. It's to Tom Wolfe's credit, that he makes such madness attractive, if not downright respectable.

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