Skip to comments.'The liberal elite hasn't got a clue'
Posted on 10/31/2004 7:42:17 PM PST by Pokey78
Tom Wolfe casts his gaze across America at this election time, with eyes that change mood in a nanosecond, with a flicker. For the most part, they exude an amused elegance befitting the hallmark white suit and dandy-ish two-tone brogues. But then the look suddenly changes, to become scalpel-sharp, mischievous, seizing upon some detail. It is a metamorphosis which begins to explain, perhaps, how this softly-spoken, immaculately-mannered gentleman journalist from the South can write with such voracity about the grime and sediment which inhabits American society and the human soul. Certainly the view is stirring from the place to which he retreats to write, and where we meet: his outrageously beautiful Manhattan apartment taking up the 14th floor of a block on the Upper East Side, with sweeping views over a Central Park drenched in autumnal sunshine. A grand piano sits in the corner, painted in what Wolfe calls "cocktail lounge navy blue". Shelves are stacked with books on 19th-century, modern and Dutch art. In what he calls his office, next to the sitting room, is a huge, handsome and ornate bureau on which sits handwriting instruments and two panama hats.
From this desk, and the pen of arguably America's greatest current writer - author of the 1987 epic Bonfire of the Vanities and much more besides - there now comes a third major novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, to be published next week, on the other side of election day. Wolfe set out, for the first time, to write the book on a computer, but gave up in favour of his usual typewriter. "Then I jammed my finger badly," he says, "and took up pen and paper. This may turn out to be the last book ever written that way."
A new Tom Wolfe novel is always a literary event: where will he go next? The answer this time is an elite, imaginary Ivy League university, Dupont College, for a book about libido off the leash, and about the cult of what Wolfe calls "the bad comedy" of college sports - athletes taken on by centres of academic excellence for their bodies, not their brains.
The novel - researched, as usual, down to the last expletive - concerns a young world speaking "fuck patois", loaded with creatine and cocaine, numbed by PlayStation 3, and charged by alcohol, the "vile spleen" of rap and, above all, ubiquitous sex between the heirs and heiresses to privilege in America. Most intriguingly, in this week of all weeks in American history, the book affords a gateway towards explaining Wolfe's boldly delivered, tantalising, remark: "I have sympathy with what George Bush is trying to do, although obviously the excursion [into Iraq] is not going well."
Four years ago, Wolfe wrote an essay to mark the millennium called Hooking Up, about what he called "feverish emphasis on sex and sexiness". In a way, the new novel is a literary fruition of the essay. The excess and decadence at Dupont College are seen through the eyes of his heroine, Charlotte Simmons, who arrives a diligent virgin from the hills of North Carolina, on a full scholarship. She is initially intimidated and appalled, but eventually conquers her fear to partake, indeed to star, in the jock beanfeast.
"I personally would be shocked out of my pants if I was at college now," confides Wolfe, who spent four years trawling the campuses for raw material. The book, he says, is "about sex as it interacts with social status. And I have tried to make the sex un-erotic. I will have failed if anyone gets the least bit excited. So much of modern sex is un-erotic, if erotic means flight of fancy or romantic build-up. Sex now is so easy to consummate - it is a pressure that affects everybody, girls more than boys, I think."
As he notes, the America which votes tomorrow is a country riven over morality like never before. On the flip side of the culture of ubiquitous sex is that of puritan Christianity, as harnessed in no small part by Bush. "Yes, there is this puritanism," says Wolfe, "and I suppose we are talking here about what you might call the religious right. But I don't think these people are left or right, they are just religious, and if you are religious, you observe certain strictures on sexual activity - you are against the mainstream, morally speaking. And I do have sympathy with them, yes, though I am not religious. I am simply in awe of it all; the openness of sex. In the 60s they talked about a sexual revolution, but it has become a sexual carnival."
No writer has chronicled the full American curve over four decades quite like Wolfe. He has been at this, unswervingly, since 1965, when he published a curio about pop culture called The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. His breakthrough came in 1968 with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his chronicle of Ken Kesey's LSD-gobbling Merry Pranksters. "If I have been judged to be right wing," he says, "I think this is because of the things I have mocked. It started with Radical Chic [published in 1970, about a fundraising party for the Black Panthers organised by Leonard Bernstein]. I was denounced because people thought I had jeopardised all progressive causes. But my impulse was not political, it was simply the absurdity of the occasion. Then I wrote The Painted Word, about modern art, and was denounced as reactionary. In fact, it is just a history, although a rather loaded one. Then came The Right Stuff [his account of America's first astronauts], after which my relative enthusiasm for Nasa was another sign of perfidy."
He is "proud", he says, "that I do not think any political motivation can be detected in my long books. My idol is Emile Zola. He was a man of the left, so people expected of him a kind of Les Miserables, in which the underdogs are always noble people. But he went out, and found a lot of ambitious, drunk, slothful and mean people out there. Zola simply could not - and was not interested in - telling a lie. You can call it honesty, or you can call it ego, but there it is. There is no motivation higher than being a good writer."
In his manifesto of 1973 on The New Journalism, Wolfe advocated a "journalistic or perhaps documentary novel". He re-invoked the idea four years ago by way of retort to a fusillade of criticism - an exchange which scandalised New York society - levelled against his last novel, A Man In Full, from no less than Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving. The new book is in itself a counter to that outburst.
Wolfe's lambent success in documenting ambition, drunkenness, sloth and meanness in his own country has taken him from his native Virginia to New York which he wrote about in Bonfire of the Vanities, pitching the super-rich "Masters of the Universe" in high finance against the real world of the Bronx. But even as the author of the quintessential New York novel, Wolfe feels estranged in the city, as he surveys America during the final days of the election campaign. Estranged not from the subjects of his scrutiny, the "Masters of the Universe", but rather from the liberal elite.
"Here is an example of the situation in America," he says: "Tina Brown wrote in her column that she was at a dinner where a group of media heavyweights were discussing, during dessert, what they could do to stop Bush. Then a waiter announces that he is from the suburbs, and will vote for Bush. And ... Tina's reaction is: 'How can we persuade these people not to vote for Bush?' I draw the opposite lesson: that Tina and her circle in the media do not have a clue about the rest of the United States. You are considered twisted and retarded if you support Bush in this election. I have never come across a candidate who is so reviled. Reagan was sniggered it, but this is personal, real hatred.
"Indeed, I was at a similar dinner, listening to the same conversation, and said: 'If all else fails, you can vote for Bush.' People looked at me as if I had just said: 'Oh, I forgot to tell you, I am a child molester.' I would vote for Bush if for no other reason than to be at the airport waving off all the people who say they are going to London if he wins again. Someone has got to stay behind."
Where does it come from, this endorsement of the most conservative administration within living memory? Of this president who champions the right and the rich, who has taken America into the mire of war, and seeks re-election tomorrow? Wolfe's eyes resume the expression of detached Southern elegance.
"I think support for Bush is about not wanting to be led by East-coast pretensions. It is about not wanting to be led by people who are forever trying to force their twisted sense of morality onto us, which is a non-morality. That is constantly done, and there is real resentment. Support for Bush is about resentment in the so-called 'red states' - a confusing term to Guardian readers, I agree - which here means, literally, middle America. I come from one of those states myself, Virginia. It's the same resentment, indeed, as that against your own newspaper when it sent emails targeting individuals in an American county." Wolfe laughs as he chastises. "No one cares to have outsiders or foreigners butting into their affairs. I'm sure that even many of those Iraqis who were cheering the fall of Saddam now object to our being there. As I said, I do not think the excursion is going well."
And John Kerry? "He is a man no one should worry about, because he has no beliefs at all. He is not going to introduce some manic radical plan, because he is poll-driven, and it is therefore impossible to know where or for what he stands."
As far as Wolfe is concerned, "the great changes in America came with the second world war, since which time I have not seen much shift in what Americans fundamentally believe. Apart from the fact that as recently as the 1970s, Nelson Rockefeller shocked people by leaving his wife of 30 years, while now celebrities routinely have children outside marriage, the mayor of New York leaves his wife for his lover and no one blinks. But a large number of people have remained religious, and it is a divided country - do not forget that Al Gore nearly won the last election. The country is split right along party lines."
And there has been a complete climate change in the nation which elected Bill Clinton twice, to that which may confer the same honour on George Bush tomorrow. This, says Wolfe, began not with the election of Bush, but on the morning of September 11 2001.
None of us who were in New York that day will ever forget it, and Wolfe is no exception. "I was sitting in my office when someone called to tell me two light planes had collided with the World Trade Centre. I turned on my television, before long there was this procession of people of all kinds, walking up the street. What I remember most was the silence of that crowd; there was no sound.
"That day told us that here was a different kind of enemy. I honestly think that America and the Bush administration felt that something extreme had to be done. But I do not think that the Americans have become a warlike people; it is rare in American history to set about empire-building - acquiring territory and slaves. I've never met an American who wanted to build an empire. And while the invasion of Afghanistan was something that had to be done, I am stunned that Iraq was invaded."
Wolfe is by no means afraid to offend the political right - "I'm gratified if you find me to be hard on them too," he says. He also anticipates that "conservatives will not like this new novel because I refuse to take the impact of political correctness seriously - I think PC has probably had a good effect because it is now bad manners to use racial epithets."
So what is it about his liberal neighbours and fellow diners in his adoptive New York that Wolfe cannot abide? "I cannot stand the lock-step among everyone in my particular world. They all do the same thing, without variation. It gets so boring. There is something in me that particularly wants it registered that I am not one of them."
Parting cordially, it seems strange that such an effervescent maverick, such a jester at the court of all power - all vanity, indeed - should so wholeheartedly endorse the power machine behind George Bush. And so an obvious thought occurs: perhaps Wolfe is jester at the court of New York too. Would he really be happier away from New York, out on the plains, in the "red states" where everyone at dinner parties votes for Bush? Wolfe's eyes revert to that mischievous glint, and he allows himself a smile. "I do think," he admits, apparently speaking for himself, his country and his president, "that if you are not having a fight with somebody, then you are not sure whether you are alive when you wake up in the morning."
Wolfe is great; an honest writer of fiction.
Bump to read later.
Wolfe is one of the best American writers working today, if not the best. I advance-ordered my copy yesterday.
Tom Wolfe was one of the few writers who nailed the counterculture where it hurt way back when. His article on "Maumauing the Flak Catchers" was priceless.
He's what I would call an ordinary, old school liberal.
That's to say, the kind who thinks. Rare since Truman.
That would've been a lot better if the writer could shut the
hell up between quotes.
Why do so many writers engage in that sort of ego-driven babble? When will they realize that no matter who much they pontificate, no one will think they are as prolific as the subject they are interviewing?
Nah, they lied about leaving after the last election, they'll lie again this time!!
Spooky, almost, this Halloween how oblivious a writer can be ("wholeheartedly endorse") to his own bias, even when writing about it.
Wolfe is mostly a social critic, not deep (and no one today is deep) but well-written. The Right Stuff was probably his best and The Painted Word his worst.
Yes, the sex is shocking. As is the end of marriage, the aggressive acceptance of homosexuality, the collapse of religion as the basis for life, the rise of short attention spans, the weight gain, the end of literature, the fragmented image that greets us daily, the widespread (internet) written word conversations for the first time in history, the generally hypnotic culture. Somewhere, someone is looking at Wolfe and shrugging, write all the books you want. Someone should be, anyway.
A great non-fiction writer as well. His pieces on E.O. Wilson and Robert Noyes (the unheralded "godfather" of the transistor)are some of the best pieces of science writing of the century (so far).
Wolfe nails it.
Thanks for the ping ... Wolfe has class!
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