A Wolfe in Hack’s Clothing

In 1989, in an infamous j’accuse published in Harper’s, Tom Wolfe took on the literary establishment. American writers are sissies, he taunted. They’re afraid to grapple with contemporary society in all its pop, surreal, punch-drunk glory. Now, with every new book, he must feel that he must personally embody the rude realism his peers are too fey to handle. But having to show up one’s fellow literati all the time has got to be a strain. Evidence that it is can be found in Hooking Up, a collection of previously published magazine pieces and a novella. Instead of details fresh from his steno pad (Wolfe’s earlier journalistic style) or even original insights (a more conventional essay-writing technique), in these articles Wolfe offers up villains more often found in the portfolios of cartoonists of a conservative bent. Among the figures Wolfe sets up in order to knock down are sexually active teen-agers, art-world scenesters, the liberal media elite, the critics who panned his last novel, A Man in Full, and intellectuals.

Boy oh boy, does Wolfe hate intellectuals. “Sweaty little colonials,” he calls them in “In the Land of the Rococo Marxists,” an article also published in Harper’s, “desperately trotting along, trying to catch up, catch up, catch up with the way the idols do it in France, which is through Theory, Theory, Theory.” They’re the most despicable people in this book, though there are many who are nearly as bad. We have heard these rants before. Wolfe hates critics who don’t appreciate representative art as much as he hated them in the 1975 Painted Word; he still hates William Shawn’s New Yorker  (his notorious 1965 attack on that magazine is reprinted here, with commentary); he hates intrusive and self-righteous producers of network television magazine shows. (These last appear in Ambush at Fort Bragg, a novella that’s an outtake from A Man in Full and the best writing in the book, though disturbing in its ferocity on the subject of gay soldiers and short, unattractive Jewish New Yorkers.) Then there are John Updike, Norman Mailer, and John Irving–the Larry, Curly, and Moe of the essay “The Three Stooges.”

This is a delirious piece of work, the essay as ressentiment, completely innocent of self-restraint. All three novelists wrote reviews critical of A Man in Full, an eventuality Wolfe must have anticipated given that he had outlined the standards by which he wanted to be judged and those standards excluded almost every writer in America but himself. (The book had its own failings, too, but we’ll let Slate’s own Tim Noah and Marjorie Williams debate them.) “How could our two senior citizens have found the energy [to review his book] in those exhausted carcasses of theirs?” sneers Wolfe of Updike and Mailer. Asked by an interviewer, “Are you saying they’re envious of your success?” he observes, “Both Updike and Mailer had books out at the same time as A Man in Full, and theirs had sunk without a bubble.”

Wolfe crowing publicly over his colleagues’ comparable lack of book sales is not salubrious, but it’s not unexpected, either. The problem with Wolfe’s book isn’t his self-aggrandizement, nastiness, or whininess; these, after all, can be amusing in their way. It is that Wolfe, the apostle of the keenly observed, has adopted a cavalier new approach to the principles of “documentation” he praised so highly 11 years ago.

Take “In the Land of the Rococo Marxists.” In the piece, he damns Frenchified nihilists in general and Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Stanley Fish, and Judith Butler in particular. These people, he says, are bastardizers of the American mind and dashers of American pride. You’d never know from Wolfe that, actually, deconstructionists and Foucauldian theorists of power have long since been banished to the farthest reaches of the groves of academe. The French got tired of post-structuralism more than a decade ago and began rereading the works of the classical Anglo-American liberals. Butler is reeling from a knockout delivered in the pages of The New Republic by Martha Nussbaum, a cogent and old-fashioned liberal philosopher very much in the ascendant. Fish, the only professor among those who remains influential in the American academy, is a dean, but at a state school, the unprestigious University of Illinois.

Wolfe doesn’t merely recycle clichés from the right-wing press. He recycles himself. The title essay, “Hooking Up: What Life Was Like At the Turn of the Second Millennium: An American’s World,” for instance, leads with the image of the “average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman” who vacations in “Puerto Vallarta, Barbados, or Saint Kitts” with his third wife and opens his “Ricky Martin cane-cutter shirt” shirt down to his navel so as to let his “gold chains twinkle in his chest hairs.” Readers of the 1989 essay might recognize this fellow, where he served as a rebuke to affected experimentalist authors who didn’t realize that their “electrician or air-conditioner mechanic or burglar-alarm repairmen might very well be in Saint Kitts or Barbados or Puerto Vallarta wearing a Harry Bellafonte cane-cutter shirt, open to the sternum, the better to reveal the gold chains twinkling in his chest hair, while he and his third wife sit on the terrace and have a little designer water before dinner.”

Rifle through the rest of the essay in search of a fresh anecdote, and you will find: A) more self-plagiarism–Wolfe cribs lines about the East versus the West coasts from another essay in the book (a fantastically detailed profile of Intel co-founder Robert Noyce that would make you think Wolfe was still up to snuff if you didn’t know that it was published in 1983), B) statistics taken from newspapers and magazines, and C) a single piece of reportage. This consists of entries in a Filofax belonging to a teen-age girl who probably attended at a fancy Manhattan private school not unlike the one Wolfe’s own daughter must have gone to. In her calendar, the girl chronicles the minutiae of her sexual exploits in code. (“Boy with black Wu Tang T-shirt and cargo pants: O,A,6” means, presumably, that she had oral and anal sex with him and rated it a 6 out of 10.)

That’s it–the one new artifact in the article. In the year 2000, if you are Wolfe and wish to issue wholesale condemnations of American society, all you need is to get hold of a teen-age girl’s Filofax.