I’m a big Tom Wolfe fan.
My favorites are The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House, and I have no patience for the boosters (oh, sorry, “experts”) of modern art of the all-black-painting variety or modern architecture of the can’t-find-the-front-door variety who can’t handle Wolfe’s criticism.
I also enjoyed Bonfire of the Vanities, with my only real complaint being the ending. Or maybe I should say the structure of the book. Wolfe sets all these great characters and plot elements in motion and then he doesn’t really resolve anything; it was kinda like he just got tired and decided to stop. That said, endings are hard. Robert Heinlein and Roald Dahl are two other writers who were great in the set-up but often had problems with the follow-through.
The characters in Bonfire were two-dimensional, but I can attribute that to Wolfe being more of a reporter than a novelist. When you’re reporting, you don’t need to flesh out your characters’ full dimensionality because, after all, they’re real people—as a reporter, you’re just telling part of the story. With a novel you have to put in that extra effort. In any case, two-dimensional ain’t bad. Gone Girl was pretty good, and all its characters were one-dimensional. 1984 is a great novel, and one might argue that its characters are zero-dimensional. The Rotter’s Club, these guys are three dimensional, but he’s Jonathan Coe, for chrissake. And Rabbit’s positively four-dimensional (remember, time is the fourth dimension), but Rabbit’s the greatest creation of a great novelist. Bonfire of the Vanities is an excellent book that we should define by its many strengths—its vividness, its up-to-the-minuteness, its Dickensianness, etc.—not by its few weaknesses.
What else? I never read The Right Stuff—the movie was so good, I felt no need to read the book—and was never able to get through his classic reportages of the car guys and the surfers and all those other pieces from the 60s. I found the whole Style!!! thing just too exhausting. It’s not that I’ll never read stream of consciousness—I read On the Road back when I was 20 or so, and it was great!—but something about those Wolfe essays, they just seemed so willed. I’m sure they were great at the time, but from the standpoint of decades later, I find the understated style of Gay Talese much more convincing. I did, however, like some of Wolfe’s later essays, such as his justification for Bonfire (that article about the billion-footed beast) and his attack on Mailer/Irving/Updike. Perhaps it’s just my taste that I preferred Wolfe when he was writing straight.
And then there was Wolfe’s attack on evolution. That was just foolish. But, hey, nobody’s perfect. Wolfe was proud of his ability to defend ridiculous positions, and in other settings that made for great writing.
After Wolfe died, I read a bunch of obituaries. And I learned a few things.
First off, I learned that he was tall. Who knew? In all those photos, I just somehow assumed he was short. Really short, like 5’3″ or something. Maybe it was how he dressed, like a dandy?
I also learned that Wolfe was middle-of-the-road, politically. I’d always thought of him as conservative, but I guess that was just in comparison to the rest of the literary establishment. According to Kyle Smith, he “habitually voted for the winner in every presidential election, except when he picked Mitt Romney in 2012 and Ross Perot in 1992.”
Finally, I learned that, in his famous article, Radical Chic, Wolfe was unfair to Leonard Bernstein. By this I don’t mean that he was making fun of Bernstein, quoting Bernstein out of context, not showing sufficient respect for Bernstein, etc. What I mean is that he put words into Bernstein’s mouth, put thoughts in Bernstein’s head, based on no evidence at all. Jay Livingston has the story. I’d never actually read that particular essay so I had no idea, and it didn’t come up in any of the other obituaries that I read. I guess maybe Radical Chic should be taken as fiction or satire; Bernstein was a public figure; you can say what you want about public figures if you’re writing fiction or satire; in any case Wolfe was still a brilliant writer and cultural critic. Still, it made me sad to learn this. Making fun of Bernstein, fine. Attributing thoughts to him—and not just any thoughts, but thoughts that make him look particularly foolish—not so cool. Then again, Wolfe was many things but I doubt he ever would’ve claimed to be cool.
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