By Tom Wolfe
Picador, 2001. 293 pages
Tom Wolfe has talent to burn. That much is clear from his new collection of essays, Hooking Up. But his greatest talent may be for self-promotion. One thing becomes increasingly evident as you read Hooking Up: The author of the best-selling novel A Man in Full is also The Man Full of Himself. The false modesty! The ego! The overbearing confidence! (Did I mention that Wolfe himself is fond of exclamation marks just! like! this!?)
At his best, Wolfe is tremendously good. A writer who single- handedly invented the form known as New Journalism over the course of nine books, he knows how to spin a fine narrative, has an endless capacity for wit and matches sharp reporting with a peerless prose style and an often daunting intellect. “Two Men Who Went West” is a great piece of reportage on the rise of the digital age. Wolfe builds a convincing theme comparing Josiah Grinnell — the Dissenting Protestant of small-town Iowa who founded the Iowan town that bears his name and gave it an excellent educational system — with Robert Noyce, who benefited from Grinnell’s extraordinary schools and founded the world’s best-known computer chip company, Intel. Wolfe clearly shows the lineage leading from Grinnell the town founder, to today’s Silicon Valley.
In other essays, Wolfe tackles sociobiology, which argues that genetics determines destiny and that concepts of free will, soul and self have nothing to do with how we lead our lives. Wolfe delights in ripping into these ideas and heaping scorn on those who propose them.
But Wolfe reserves his greatest bile for anyone who dares to disagree with his own vision of the novel. In “My Three Stooges,” he reiterates his call for a documentary novel of “intense social realism based upon the same painstaking reporting that goes into the New Journalism.” Wolfe then proceeded to turn out two such books, The Bonfire of the Vanities and the aforementioned A Man in Full. Before introducing us to the stooges who snub his vision, Wolfe treats us to a blow-by-blow description of the reviews, the profiles and the fuss over the latter novel. “It’s uncomfortable being compelled to sum things up so baldly,” Wolfe writes, “but here, in as few words as possible, is what we have: a critically acclaimed novel selling at an astonishing clip in a blaze of publicity.” Heaven forbid, then, that anyone should have the temerity to criticize the book. So who are the “three stooges” who dare sully Wolfe’s excellent and perfect idea of what constitutes a novel? No less than John Updike, Norman Mailer and John Irving.
But how delicious, as Wolfe himself might write, to lash out at these big names. After all, it guarantees ink and, even more importantly, television appearances: That is how you sell books. So what if Updike, Mailer and Irving might actually have a point or two? Certainly, Wolfe is entitled to rail away in favour of novels that traffic in intense realism. It seems a tad narrow-minded, however, to dismiss everything else.
But then Wolfe has always been a populist, particularly when it comes to art. Still, to single out Terry McMillan’s decidedly light- weight Waiting to Exhale and Joseph Wambaugh’s shallow cop thriller The Choirboys as “wonderful books” seems a bit extreme.
Wolfe includes another self-serving section on the furore caused by his profile of William Shawn in — wait for it — 1963. (In fact, there is only one new essay in the entire collection.) The article, entitled “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!” relies on inferences, insults and other cheap effects. Its one funny note, and obviously the whole piece is built around it, is when Wolfe wonders why all of the New Yorker writers failed to turn out truly great and memorable work. “They had achieved the perhaps small-scale but still special goal he (former editor Harold Ross) had set for them — Anglo-Saxon sophistication – – very well. Ecce homines! Tiny Giants!”
Oh, but Wolfe is no tiny giant. He is a man of stature, a veritable colossus striding across the content of today’s media networks.
A man of the hour — of the moment even — Wolfe has his pulse on the ticker of the nation and is taking society’s measure. Hooking Up — even the title of his book is up-to-the second; it’s current slang for sleeping together — is entertaining, urbane and sharp. But it would be all that much better if its author wasn’t so keenly aware of it.
Copyright © 2013 Charles Mandel
References and further reading:
Tom Wolfe’s page for Hooking Up: http://www.tomwolfe.com/HookingUp.html