Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Re-Meet The Man In The White Suit With His Own Creation Myth

This blogger's favorite author since the mid-1960s has been Thomas Kennerly "Tom" Wolfe, Jr. The blogger made a holy crusade of reading all of Tom Wolfe's books (both fiction and non-fiction) a few years ago; his most recent novel, Back to Blood (2012) is in the blogger's Kindle queue. Why this lacuna? Obviously, this blogger took his eye off the Wolfe-ball. If this is (fair & balanced) sniveling, so be it.

[x Esquire]
The Radical Power Of Tom Wolfe
By Tom Junod

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​One of the great pleasures of reading Tom Wolfe—of still reading Tom Wolfe—is the sense of awe he consistently inspires. No, not through his grasp of character, as Talese; or the lengths to which he allowed his sentences to go in pursuit of his thoughts, as Mailer; or the extent of his humanity, as Sack. What inspires awe in Wolfe is simply that he fucking got away with it.

I'm not referring to any one thing; I'm referring to everything—to every sentence, every paragraph, every story, every jot and tittle. His reputation has suffered because he was never a particularly literary writer; Updike, over at The New Yorker, turned up his nose at Wolfe's novels and rendered what was meant as a decisive judgment: "entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form." But if literature is, as Ezra Pound said, "news that stays news," Wolfe, as a journalist in the sixties and the seventies, wrote something even harder to achieve: news that somehow managed to stay new. Sure, he was radical then—so was everybody. The miracle of Tom Wolfe is that he remains radical now and that the experience of reading, say, Radical Chic (1970) again is not unlike the experience of listening to "Brown Sugar" on the radio for the umpteenth time: You still can't believe he's saying what he's saying, and you envy him his freedom not only to say it but also to dance to it.

He is such an original that he remains the only journalist to have his own origin story, his own creation myth. Finding himself blocked in his efforts to write a proper magazine article about a custom-car convention Esquire had assigned him to cover in California back in 1963, he instead wrote an improper one, typing up his notes in one overnight binge and sending them to editor Byron Dobell in the form of a letter. Dobell struck the "Dear Byron" and published the rest, and in so doing became the Sam Phillips to Wolfe's Elvis. Faced with the challenge of the new, Wolfe became the new, a writer who was unwilling to sacrifice urgency to propriety, who entertained without succumbing to a professional obligation to seem merely amused, and who was never afraid of looking and sounding ridiculous in order to render the ridiculousness of a culture remaking itself through an unlikely war between money and status.

What did he get away with? Well, unlike the esteemed Joseph Mitchell, he didn't get away with making it up, nor did he get away with getting it wrong. If anything, he is accused of getting it right, mercilessly. I remember listening to a discussion on the radio with the daughter of Leonard Bernstein, who complained that her father and mother were simply never the same after Wolfe got through with them in Radical Chic. It wasn't just that he was mean to them; it was that he didn't take them seriously: He did the unforgivable and found them funny.

It's worth looking at what journalists are doing now for a keener appreciation of what Wolfe was up to then. There is certainly no want of journalistic ambition among the purveyors of what is now called "long-form," nor of novelistic technique brought to bear on nonfiction, nor of outrage. What has gone missing—or been left to the provocateurs of the right—is outrageousness and a sense of something like larceny and a willingness to upend the moral assumptions of reporting. A. J. Liebling boasted that he wrote faster than anyone who wrote better and better than anyone who wrote faster. But Wolfe wrote funnier, and the enduring shock of his work is that it remains so today. We are trained to distinguish between journalism that's short and long, that's responsible and irresponsible, that stands for the right values and stands for the wrong. But in the end, it's all sheep's clothing, because there is so very little Wolfe. Ω

[Tom Junod has worked as a writer for Esquire magazine since 1997. He has received two National Magazine Awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors. The first award was for a profile of John Britton, an abortion doctor and the second for a profile of a rapist undergoing therapy while enduring what is known as "civil commitment." He is also a ten-time finalist for the award. Junod graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the State University of New York at Albany.]

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