The derision Wolfe heaps on Felicia Bernstein's Mary Astor accent towers over the loving paean he delivers to Carol Doda's plasticene breasts. But then Felicia is in, really in, and Carol, however notoriously, was always out. Felicia is the obvious target for the satirist's scorn. Wolfe could laugh with poor Carol, at her audience and at herself, but he can only laugh at dear Felicia. And so a sharpness enters his voice where it did not previously exist.
The whole problem of Tom Wolfe's voice has always been a particularly tricky one. Even within the realms of a single essay, he comes off the indefatigable ventriloquist, first projecting his voice through one character and then rushing off to speak through another. Where Mailer chooses to raise himself as the touchstone against which the rest of his work can be measured, Wolfe dissolves into an invisible man. Occasionally he allows us glimpses of himself, white-suited and bemused, but always he remains elusive.
Now that's fine enough when you're dealing with styles- and that is what Wolfe claims to be dealing with- but it's a pretty inadequate method of dealing with what must be recognized as a social problem. True enough, the oppression the Panthers encounter can only be heard as a distant echo within the Bernstein duplex. There is something funny in the Bernsteins' noblesse oblige. But to treat the Panthers' predicament as equally amusing- "Lenny reaches up from out of the depths of the easy chair and hands him [Don Cox] a mint . . . a puffed mint, an after-dinner mint, of the sort that suddenly appears on the table in little silver Marthinsen bowls, as if deposited by the mint fairy"- is to regard what is at best tragically macabre as a comic trifle.
THE BERNSTEIN party achieved fame for being the last, as well as the most publicized, Panther party. (Thanks largely to the New York Times, which sent the Curtis story out over its wire and then published its own damning editorial. Wolfe repeats the Bernsteins' conspiracy theory explanation, but defaults as a journalist in not investigating the Times' Bernstein pogrom himself.) When word of the party got around, everything suddenly went askew, other stories were cancelled, and the only radical cause left in vogue became the preservation of ocelots and cheetas. In short, the chic had hit the fan. A potential source of funds for the Panther defense disappeared.
While Wolfe has revived the controversy, the Panthers had become demodee months before his tardy article was published. (The new line invokes support of Panther civil rights, but absolutely deplores the Panther stance on Israel.) In any case,
Wolfe couldn't be expected to calculate the effects of his article- such second-guessing could lead a journalist to catatonio. Let the chic fall where it may.
BUT one's attempts to treat Wolfe with magnanimity quickly dissipate after a single reading of "Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers," the other half of the book. Wolfe's title refers to the chaos that the anti-poverty program has created in San Francisco. If minority groups want to qualify for poverty funds, they have to present themselves as angry militants by threatening the lives (mau-mauing) of second-string bureaucrats (the flak-catchers).
Again Wolf focuses on the immediate absurdities of styles, denying the more tragic implications of motivation. And so we see blacks, chicanos, Filipinos dress themselves up with the Klan-cloths of terrorism in their attempts to get Massah to throw them the crumbs. And since Massah knows it's all a charade, he only has to pretend to be scared.
Wolfe can find something to love in the blacks' outrageousness, but, dealing as he is with a type and not an individual (Carol Doda was not meant to be all big-breasted women, but in "Mau-Mau," Chaser is meant to be every black urban leader), his humor descends into racism:
When everybody started wearing the Afros, it was hard on a lot of older men who were losing their hair. They would grow it long on the sides anyway and they would end up looking like that super-Tom on the Uncle Ben Rice box, or Bozo the Clown.
Aw, go ahead, then Tom, why don't you just get it over with, go ahead and touch it and see if it feels like wool . . .
No one is asking Wolfe to respect the poverty program- that it dehumanizes all involved his prose unwittingly attests- but only to respect the basic seriousness of America's social crises. Instead Wolfe appears to blame the black for the white liberal's sins. And to pull off a good joke in the process. His only mistake was to alienate his potential allies- Bernstein et al.- within the pages of the same book. So while it may be chic to turn thumbs down on poor Tom, for once it might also be quite the decent thing to do.