Books: The Metropolitan Critic — Tom Wolfe’s <i>The Mid-Atlantic Man</i> |
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Tom Wolfe’s The Mid-Atlantic Man

Most posh reviews of Tom Wolfe’s books attempt to parody his style, demonstrating in the process that there is more to it than meets the eye, since they are hardly ever any good. Wolfe has a lot more in the bag than conversational syntax, dots and dashes and pre-release vogue words. He has a fine sense of timing his detail and a sensitive foot on the accelerator: a steadily developing surge in the back propels you forward to the belief that the action is just over there, it’s practically here, you’re almost in it — it’s ON!

That’s the whole story of his success, though not necessarily of his literary importance: he’s a colour supplement with the pix transmuted into prose, making the new scenes available to those who will live them in only a token way. Wolfe is a McLuhan Man even more than he himself realizes: not only does he condense pictures into an information beam of words which the reader’s eye immediately converts back into pictures, but he embodies the point on which all McLuhan’s theories about the simultaneous presence of information in the Global Village come to grief — information displaces experience, reportage obliterates reality. Wolfe writes best about people who don’t need to read him. If you feel the urge to read him, you’re probably plugged out. You’re not getting it, you’re boning up on it. Bad scene.

Without employing any (or not many — his prose has internal rhymes) of the lyric poet’s techniques, Wolfe has the poet’s gift of tuning in sonically to something fundamental in the brain — perhaps the alpha wave, or whatever it is that strobe lights and mainstream drumming also affect directly. In the strictest sense his writing makes compulsive reading. It is very difficult to stop the flow and question the attitudes that this latest and most hallucinating of the dandy monologuists undoubtedly has at some level or other.

As a cultural journalist it is difficult to type him, to find out exactly what lines he is pushing. His role is obvious enough: a kind of uttermost extension of the task which began to be performed much earlier by writers like Gilbert Seldes and Otis Ferguson, Malcolm Cowley’s free-wheeling assistant on the New Republic of the mid thirties — the locating and analysing, with sociological overtones, of the Lively Arts. All this and much more (he locates whole new life-styles, though it should be said he is not often first on the scene — merely loudest) Wolfe does well enough and sometimes brilliantly, but it isn’t easy to find out where he stands in the maelstrom of what he describes and, by describing, helps towards a better-known, consequently self-conscious and arguably more vulnerable existence. He is a dandy but not totally an unashamed one. In appearance he resembles Barry Humphries taking over Alec Guinness’s role in The Man in the White Suit: the drag looks like a million, but the long hair carefully hints at all the brainy little wheels spinning underneath. He earns overwhelming, value-distorting amounts of bread even by American standards — the chapter on the automated hotel-room he took in order to finish some articles rocks you in more ways than one, since not many British journalists could earn in a whole day’s writing what the room must have cost per hour.

He makes the scene, both the good scene and the bad scene: he has the precious gift of smelling out the power in a given set-up and taking it to lunch. A man with that much In has to be a smoothie — or else somebody cursed/blessed by the trick of identifying with any mood he runs into, in the way that some people can’t help mimicking other people’s accents. It’s more than receptivity, it’s a weakness: liberating in one way, but disabling in another, since only those capable of rejection can body forth a vision. But how many journalists have interviewed Hugh Hefner (‘King of the Status Dropouts’, a key essay to Wolfe’s strengths and weaknesses) actually in situ on his clownish revolving bed? And how many journalists have trotted along with Natalie Wood while she buys paintings? George Augustus Sala would have tipped his lid.

Yet it’s exactly in these celebrity pieces that his pose of detached involvement (detached from the past, involved in the new permanent present) — his idea that these new ‘statuspheres’ need to be reported objectively without any prejudice deriving from the obsolescing life-style of the ‘first industrial revolution’ — become attitudes in themselves. Regarded as an individual, Natalie Wood is not much more than a vapidly pretty face, and regarded as a representative of the overpaid film people who keep the heritage of European art out of circulation she is simply a pain in the neck. Take away the wowee prose and Wolfe’s attentive regard for her reads like the ordinary highbrow slumming of those pro-popular, anti-mandarin intellectuals who spout hosannahs for Elizabeth Taylor when by some stupendous application of will-power she manages to be adequate. And surely Hefner is a joke and his magazine trash: whatever Robert Conquest says, and no matter how many millions of its readers are getting an intensity of attention paid to their dreams that has never happened in history before, Playboy’s status as pitiful cede is absolutely fixed.

Wolfe throws away his standards in order to liberate his receptivity for the New. To a great extent he has made an original job of this, but few of his exciting discoveries can really be claimed as a breakthrough in society with the same force as they can be rejected as further corruptions of it. Hefner! Custom cars! (He was very late on the scene there.) Pill-head Mods in groovy Tiles! (Featuring somebody called Larry Lynch, a kid just made to zip around cutely in the under-cranked sequences of a Clive Donner movie.) The Motorcycle Sub-culture! And here Wolfe doesn’t hint at the obvious fact that one of the secrets is not that these people can ride bikes better than you and I ride buses, but that they can’t ride bikes like Agostini: hence the overblown mystique, which true dedication in any field is usually free of.

Here as elsewhere the social pressure being fought is partly a meritocratic one, the anti-social pressure to be really good at something. To get around it, aspirants form new social groups where the pressure to excel is reduced to an expression of minor gradations, such as lace ruffs and cuffs for the Mods or the Totenkopf badges on Hell’s Angels’ caps. Wolfe’s essay on surfing, the best in the book, doesn’t square with the other essays on life-styles for just this reason, since it concerns a whole new aesthetic in which excellence is fundamental. Good surfers are poets, and Mods are kewpie dolls: unless you are equipped with a cover-up prose style like Wolfe’s you can’t equate them. The many scenes making up the Wolfean Scene appear all of a piece only to people bereft of analytical powers — trendies, the New Lost.

The new enjoying is something Wolfe only asserts is happening. In fact it is only he and men like him who are doing the real enjoying, since only they are examining (as well as vicariously living) these new life-styles, and since it remains true that only the examined life is worth living. If Wolfe thinks that the apocalyptic future will have a ‘happiness explosion’ as its central problem, he’s nuts. But really he’s not that certain, and some doubts remain — he’s not completely sure about Carol Doda, the girl with the silicone boobs. The superbly evocative essay on Edward T. Hall and Behavioural Sink is even more to the point. The essay on McLuhan hedges every possible bet — McLuhan is Wolfe’s enemy’s enemy, but can’t possibly be his, or any other writer’s, friend. The author’s own drawings decorate the chapter headings: they are fairly conventional, as his writing is fairly unconventional. But exciting, there’s no denying it.

(Observer, 1969)


Although Tom Wolfe was far less famous in those days, he was already getting that way, so the reader should allow for the possibility of envy. As far as I can remember my feelings, however, all I envied Wolfe was the scale of his remuneration. I shared Dwight Macdonald’s low estimation of Wolfe’s mimetic tricksiness. Ten years or so later I was interviewed, disastrously for me, by an early-model style-file journalist wearing a very carefully chosen ensemble. He seemed to have read no other writer except Tom Wolfe. He refused to believe that Wolfe hadn’t been my chief influence. When I told him that I had been influenced by every American literary journalist since H. L. Mencken he asked me to spell Mencken. An era was over, traditions were dead, the permanent present had arrived, and even the journalists wanted to be stars. It would be hypocritical to claim exemption, but I still thought that Wolfe made so much noise he was hard to hear, and that his dazzling white suit made him hard to see. When the current younger generation credit him with the foundation of the New Journalism, however, they are talking a brand of malarkey that Wolfe himself never promulgated: he has always been careful to admit his grounding in the tradition that includes A. J. Liebling among all the other writers who devoted first-rate talents to seemingly slight subjects. Later on I interviewed Hefner myself and earned lasting disapprobation for climbing into the swimming pool of Playboy Mansion West with three of his Playmates. My television interview with Hefner had turned out so paralysingly boring that I had to tart it up somehow, even at the price of submerging my reputation in a pond full of houris. Nevertheless I was more resistant to Hefner’s self-proclaimed genius than Wolfe, who climbed into his mind without even tasting the chlorine. Submission to the subject is a desirable preliminary but should not be allowed to culminate in a violation of the sensibilities. Wolfe hailed Hefner’s success in creating his own ‘statusphere’ (mirabile dictu) while neglecting to point out that the same could have been said of Kahlil Gibran, to whose prose style Hefner’s yielded few points for turgidity. I was wrong about Natalie Wood: she was bright, spoke Russian and had as much right to collect paintings as anyone else.