A number of years ago I attended a gathering where I met author Tom Wolfe. I told The Man in White in all honesty that his creative nonfiction masterwork, The Right Stuff, was one of the best books I have ever read. My comment was later echoed in spirit by none other than the Editorial Board of the august Modern Library, which placed The Right Stuff near the top of its vaunted list of Best Nonfiction Books of the Century.
None but a few literary apostates dispute that Wolfe â€“ who helped forge “the new journalism” in the 1960’s with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby – is a premier contemporary writer. As such, his most recent work, Hooking Up, was published last fall to much anticipation among both readers and booksellers. Surprisingly, sales have been sluggish; in January, an undisturbed pile of pristine copies was spotted on the discount table of a popular northern Virginia bookstore. A sales clerk affirmed: “People just aren’t buying it.”
Indeed, this latest from the facile-penned Wolfe is uncharacteristically tough to navigate. Burdened with an obtuse jacket design â€“ a neon yellow cover bearing only the author’s name and a horizontal line of interlocking rings â€“ the book does little to entice or even reveal itself to prospective readers.
Described on the inner jacket flap as a literary/cultural “MRI at the dawn of a new age,” the work is touted for its high points. Among other things, the flap copy claims, this new Wolfe tome reveals the appalling truth about modern teen sex habits; identifies major new trends in the arts; and presents two “never-before-reprinted”(!) articles from the early days of Wolfe’s journalistic career. Somewhere in the inside fine print is the notation that much of the book was, in fact, first printed elsewhere.
So. Except for a novella inexplicably plunked in medias res, this is an anthology of literary nonfiction essays. And, once you settle into the notion that this is in fact what you’re reading, what essays they are! The title piece, “Hooking Up,” is a tantalizing expose on the sexual mores â€“ or lack of them â€“ of American teenagers. Always the dutiful reporter, Wolfe informs us that the old “1st base,” “2nd base,” etc., system of describing progressive sexual activity has been restructured. Oral sex, once consigned to the furthest reaches of “3rd base,” is now merely the second stop en route to “Home:” learning one another’s names. But while Wolfe is entertaining in his pose as a startled observer of shocking customs, he also seems a bit credulous. I described some of Wolfe’s observations to my own conscientiously hip teenager, who actually laughed at Wolfe’s whole-hearted belief in the new sluttishness. Like the teens who once bamboozled anthropologist Margaret Mead with their tales of coming of age in Samoa, perhaps Wolfe’s subjects conspired to pull the wool over the eyes of an aging journalist.
Far more reliable are the essays wherein Wolfe dissects literary/cultural trends, and virtually tap-dances connections between art, science, technology, and literary criticism. In one meticulously documented essay, Wolfe puts forth that the noted theologian and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who died in poverty in 1955, predicted with eerie accuracy the invention and cultural power of the Internet. Wolfe traces Teilhard’s impact on influential social analyst Marshall McLuhan, and then describes McLuhan’s own subsequent impact on modern digital culture.
Wolfe’s arguments are so clear and his research so thorough that the reader reacts with an inner “Aha!” to Wolfe’s conclusion that the Web is “â€¦founded upon Teilhard’s and McLuhan’s faith in the power of electronic technology to alter the human mind and unite all souls in a seamless Christian web, the All-in-One.”
Elsewhere, Wolfe writes with such passion about the frontiers of brain research, genetic findings and religious thought that he almost makes you want to drop everything and pioneer a new field that synthesizes the three subjects.
Wolfe pulls off a similar effect when recounting his literary feuds. The “never-before reprinted” articles from 1965, skewering the New Yorker and then-editor William Shawn, are so high-spirited and gleefully malicious that they make you pine for some literary enemy of your own with whom to exchange pithy barbs.
In “My Three Stooges,” a gloriously boastful Wolfe trounces three literary enemies (the aforementioned apostates): Norman Mailer, John Updike, and John Irving, who had the poor judgment to savage Wolfe’s novel, A Man in Full, for being insufficiently literary. Wolfe ripostes with the wordsmith’s version of a one-two punch. Feigning embarrassment at even mentioning a matter so vulgar as sales figures, Wolfe reveals, among other things, that A Man in Full sold out its entire hefty first printing and seven subsequent print runs of 25,000 books each. For the second blow, Wolfe gloats that the “Three Stooges” are literary has-beens; men who have wasted their considerable talent on dull subject matter that nobody wants to read.
It is, of course, almost impossible to imagine a Wolfe book that won’t be read. If Hooking Up does in fact wind up on the remainder pile, Wolfe has only poor packaging (in other words, his publisher) to blame; for this is a fine and stimulating read from a true giant of American letters.