Books Reviewed

Tom Wolfe has been on a lonely crusade for more than a decade. His repeated calls for a return to realism in American fiction have largely gone unanswered. Makes you wonder.

Thirteen years ago, after a 25-year career as one of the most prominent, and probably the best non-fiction writer in America, Wolfe published his first big realistic novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. The reviews were mixed (the consensus among the complainers seemed to be: brilliantly plotted, devastatingly accurate, uproariously funny, lacks “heart”), but clearly he had found an audience for realism. Bonfire sold 800,000 copies in hardcover, another two million in paperback, and spent more than a year on the bestseller list.

It took him 11 years to finish his next big realistic novel, A Man in Full, but the payoff was even greater: glowing reviews, the cover of Time, and hardcover sales of 1.4 million.

Again, it makes you wonder: with baubles like these out there awaiting the realistic novelist, why hasn’t Wolfe’s crusade attracted more disciples?

Wolfe’s own answer is that realism is considered hopelessly “low rent” by the literary establishment. The problem is that realistic fiction depends at least as much on the subject matter to be “realized” as it does on the style, syntax, and pacing—in a word, “genius”—of the author. Yet every modern man of letters knows that these last are what count, not the mundane details of “how we live now.” Since most young writers who set out to publish novels hope to join the establishment, naturally they don’t take up a genre that its lions despise.

But Wolfe is quick to add another, more prosaic reason: realism is a lot of work. All that researching, traveling, interviewing, digging, hustling, reporting…it’s too much trouble. The point of being a writer, after all, is to be thought of as a genius, and make a living, while never leaving the cozy confines of the study, or at any rate the cubicle at the editorial offices of Harper’s.

This has never been Wolfe’s own view. From the beginning, he has been, to use his own construction, a “farmer of journalism” who loves “the good rich soil itself, for itself”; he lives for nothing more than to “plunge his hands into the dirt.”

So it is ironic that after 25 years of tilling the soil that is American life—and not, incidentally, dissing the desk-bound literati—Wolfe’s latest book should be a collection of essays that, on the surface, is indistinguishable from a volume of “criticism” by an Ivy league English professor. Except that it is much, much better.

Hooking Up contains almost none of the innovations that Wolfe pioneered in non-fiction—the scene-by-scene construction of every piece, the zippy yet true-to-life dialogue, the liberal use of varying points of view. It does, however, reprint for the first time the twin essays that made him a star. Wolfe’s attack on The New Yorker, which caused such a furor when published in two parts in 1965, is still hilarious, and thanks to the two equally hilarious “framing” essays that Wolfe provides, contemporary readers can learn what all the fuss was about. Beyond their historical importance, The New Yorker pieces represent perhaps the ne plus ultra of that overheated, bizarrely punctuated, irony-drenched prose style that made him famous.

Hooking Up gives a taste—but only a taste—of what might have been had Wolfe’s one big idea caught on. The book’s longest piece by far is Wolfe’s novella Ambush at Fort Bragg, which was assembled out of detritus from an abandoned subplot of A Man in Full. As such, it has problems, chiefly an unsatisfying ending. But it is so well done in other respects, i.e., plot, character, setting, dialogue, and theme, that one hardly notices. It takes the reader into places that are not easy (or in all cases desirable) to visit, but about which he might nonetheless be curious—places like network news production booths, or strip bars frequented by soldiers of the U.S. Army. And it provides enough telling details about these places and the people who inhabit them that one is kept positively rapt, and is grateful to Wolfe for bringing the news—the truth of what is going on out there, behind the facades. This is what made Bonfire and A Man in Full such huge successes. People are curious, and they are more curious about what actually exists in the wide world around them than in what some tweedy intellectuals think about it.

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So why does Wolfe now give us a bunch of reflections in the style of the tweedy intellectual? Partly, one suspects, to get something out there, so that he will not have to endure (yet again) the embarrassment of an 11-year lag between books. But there may be more to it than this. These essays make abundantly clear—if it was not clear to everyone already—that Wolfe is a conservative, and a patriot. Hooking Up thus may be said to be his formal coming out.

Wolfe has certainly never been a liberal. But in the past he seemed to take a little too much delight in the lurid spectacle of traditional moral restraints being shucked off by giddy Americans, young and old, to qualify fully as conservative. The title essay revisits this familiar Wolfean terrain, but Wolfe comes off less amused than he used to be, and more outraged. He seems to understand what is at stake, and also to grasp that the understanding of moral things is incompatible with neutrality about them.

Intellectual fads still amuse Wolfe to no end, however, and he is as amusing as ever in skewering them. This Yale Ph.D. and frequent college lecturer finds almost nothing worth taking seriously in the halls of academe—who could?—and comes away refreshingly appalled by its anti-Americanism. One is made uneasy, however, by the suspicion that he finds no higher source of pride in America than its wealth and power, but perhaps this is read too much into what is in other respects a pretty fair summary of the mind of the modern professoriate.

There can be little doubt, however, that Wolfe really does believe some of the other nonsense he reports. He has always been drawn to novelty. This healthy reporter’s instinct turns unhealthy when it leads him to declare “brain imaging” the science that will once and for all debunk such quaint notions as “the mind,” “the soul,” and “free will” (the sneer quotes are his). Wolfe is surely right that the brain scientists think this. But are they right? He doesn’t ask, and in a piece of writing that clearly aspires to transcend mere journalism in favor of something approaching philosophy, this is a fatal omission.

So is his unwillingness, in the same vein, to subject the theories of E.O. Wilson to any kind of scrutiny. Wolfe is so refreshing in debunking the millennial rantings of Internet utopians (“Digibabble,” he calls it) that one wishes he had turned the same critical eye on the soul-killing babble in modern neuroscience.

If any other reasonable complaint can be made about Hooking Up, it is the exclusion of the essay “The New Journalism,” first published as the introduction to Wolfe’s edited compilation of the same name, and never reprinted. It is a bravura performance, enlightening and intoxicating to read. Wolfe probably left it out because, now that he is a successful novelist, he figures it is unwise to remain on the record proclaiming the “death of the novel.” Fair enough. But then why not include the almost-as-good “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” in which Wolfe makes the same case for novelistic realism, this time from the perspective of fiction rather than non-fiction?

Perhaps because Wolfe has made the same case yet again, this time in an unfortunate attack on three eminent novelists who didn’t like A Man in Full, and said so. One doesn’t have to disagree with Wolfe’s assessment of these writers or their books to think this particular piece—charitably titled “My Three Stooges”—is unworthy of Wolfe. He has long enjoyed comparing the literary output of the first half of the last century with that of the second, his point being that there is no comparison. But this time, his tone is too personal, too bitter. Wolfe, after all, has every reason to show his critics a little magnanimity. He is richer than they are, more popular, and his books are better than theirs. Gentlemen don’t rub it in.