The Book Club

Politico or Artist?

Dear Tim,

Before I get into Wolfe’s weird gay-bashing tendencies, just one more observation on the male/female theme. Even if I grant your assertion that the novel has been annexed by women and domestic concerns (and I’m not entirely sure I do–what about Cold Mountain? What about David Leavitt and John Irving and David Lodge? What about popular fiction, with its legions of Tom Clancys and cop thrillers?), I will say this for the Anne Tylers of the world: At least they’re not swanning around boasting about how their books capture the hog-stomping entirety of American Life Today. It’s Wolfe’s pretensions to universality that make his lack of interest in women characters especially annoying. (Hah: you thought I had conceded on this point, didn’t you?)

As for Wolfe’s homophobia… It opens up the interesting question of how political a novelist Wolfe really is. It’s clear that his own politics are at this point very conservative. But how much does he see his novels as a brief for this point of view? Several reviewers–especially Walter Kirn in New York Magazine and Elaine Showalter in Salon–have read A Man in Full as a pitch for libertarian conservatism and a wholesale attack on all forms of political correctness; in Kirn’s words, as “[Ayn] Rand with laughs.”

I think this point of view gives Wolfe either too little or too much credit, depending on one’s own appetite for polemical fiction. Ever since the days of Radical Chic, he’s loved to pierce the pretensions of liberalism; no one has ever done it better. But most of the time I think you have to credit him with purely literary motivations. His real gift is and always has been as a social observer, enumerating all the tiny schisms of class and race and status in American life. And I think he saw in Charlie Croker’s Atlanta the rich subject of the New and Old Souths colliding–period. Or at least mostly. It’s true that he writes about Croker with incredible patience and sympathy for his bullheaded egotism and his mossback attitudes. But his generosity toward Charlie struck me as a matter of artistic generosity: Here he is, reader, love him or hate him but at least see him, in all his discomfort with Jews and condescension toward blacks and fearful lust toward women. See him, and watch him confront a world in which he is a dinosaur. One of the great moments in the book comes when Charlie turns toward a Jewish guest at his plantation, Herb Richman–a wealthy entrepreneur he’s trying to lure as a tenant for his failing building; such is his self-consciousness (he knows Richman is Jewish, and he knows he’s not supposed to care, and he’s working himself up into a lather of the open-mindedness he knows his business requires) that what comes out of his mouth is not “Herb” but “Hebe.” It causes him an agony of chagrin–and if that chagrin is mostly selfish (so much for his new tenant!), that fact has the truth of art.

Granted, Wolfe is more interested in the hypocrisies of the New South than of the Old. (I think he sees both camps in a mercenary light–he sees everything in a pretty mercenary light–but correctly decided there was better material in, well, what’s new.) I’m sure his politics go into that, but he doesn’t write like a man whose only muse is politics. You can’t get around the fact that liberal orthodoxy still offers the satirist a richer kind of hypocrisy than conservative orthodoxy does; conservative orthodoxy has been around for so long, and doesn’t have as many airs as liberalism still does today. I say all this fondly, as one who is well to the left of Tom Wolfe.

Yet still I feel uncomfortable taking my argument too far. Because there are those strange flashes of something… ugly is his recent work, and his writing about gays is by far the most rampant example. It suggests an intolerance that runs deeper, or at least older, than all his brainy dyspepsia. Sometimes he seems to have it under control (it is funny, damnit, to watch all these upper-crust Atlantans pay $20,000 a table for an art exhibit they’re fundamentally shocked by), and at other times he seems to write out of a lamentable blind spot. Ambush at Fort Bragg rattles along so merrily until suddenly he writes himself into this untenable corner of celebrating a murderer. (And if I may toot my husband’s horn a little, you wrote a wonderful condemnation of Ambush’s politics in U.S. News & World Report at the time of its publication, pleading, “Don’t get crazy and mean and irrelevant on us now, Tom!”) The ugliness of that book’s ending does have to be seen for what it is. But I still don’t think it requires that, like Kirn and Showalter, we read everything Wolfe writes as a screed that must be argued with.