The Book Club

Guys and Dolls

Dear Tim,

Oh yes, oh yes, please let me start. I am of course anxious to hear from you and your male chromosome how seriously you take Wolfe’s explorations of the meaning of manhood. Croker is well-nigh obsessed with his chest muscles and his potency and all the financial measurements and luxurious appointments that he values mostly as measures of his manhood. Conrad, many ranks lower down the food chain, labors mightily to be the traditional provider for his family. And Raymond Peepgass (a mid-level banking official whose presence in the book we have hitherto slighted) makes a life-changing assertion of his manhood in trying to run a financial scam that Wolfe hilariously describes as a decision to let his red dog loose. The liveliest scenes in the book, it has to be said, are the most testosterone-laced, whether they’re set among the cutthroats of the bank’s “workout” team, who all stand around “with their thighs ajar in an athletic sprawl, as if they were bulging with so much testosterone they couldn’t have closed their legs if they tried,” or among the brutes of the Santa Rita prison.

But first let me whine for a minute. Granting Wolfe the seriousness of his interest in masculinity, does it automatically follow that all the women in the book have to be such cartoons? With one exception, they’re all bimbetic objects of masculine lust (“loins” is the key word here) or total gorgons. (It’s hard to say which of Conrad’s torments is worse: the threat of being gang-raped by thugs in prison or life at home with his mother-in-law, who is truly a bitch and a half.) The one exception is Croker’s discarded first wife, who is at least granted an interior life in the book. But Wolfe’s riffs on what it’s like to be the invisible reject are the least original material in the book–perhaps because he lifted Martha Croker almost verbatim from a piece he published in 1980, “The Invisible Wife.” (No doubt it seemed trailblazing then. I am, by the way, indebted for this information to David Kamp’s excellent profile of Wolfe in the September Vanity Fair.)

I want to be careful to defend my complaint on aesthetic rather than political grounds. The objections to it, I concede, are two: 1) Wolfe is writing about a heavily masculine culture, in which women’s invisibility is to some extent a fact of life. 2) It’s his book; if he’s more interested in the men than the women, that’s authorial prerogative. But as long as he was putting some women in, why make wallpaper of them?

The best example is Charlie’s second, trophy wife, Serena. The outward descriptions of her are of course letter perfect. (Including her insistence on naming the couple’s baby–one infant heir being the insurance policy that, according to Wolfe, all young second wives take out–Kingsley. Old-fashioned Charlie is so embarrassed by this bauble of a name that he can never bring himself to refer to the baby except as “her.” Very nice detail.) But Wolfe is so bored by Serena as more than a circumstance that he doesn’t even milk the dramatic possibilities that might have been found in her reactions to Charlie’s financial doom. Sure, Charlie reflects on the reality that one’s second wife marries one not for better or worse, only for better; but until the very end of the book, even her petty fear and anger are missing from the picture. Maybe Wolfe’s apparent lack of interest is a fair reflection of how little Serena’s feelings would figure in Charlie’s view of the world. But I missed what he might have made of them.

Oh, hell, I’m pissing into wind here, aren’t I? Or would be, if I had the right kind of loins.

I concede, by the way, that you’re correct in saying that Wolfe has fudged his time frame. But I don’t much feel that it matters.