Memo to Wolfe: Ditch the Novel

Noah and Williams

Memo to Wolfe: Ditch the Novel

Noah and Williams

Memo to Wolfe: Ditch the Novel
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 13 1998 9:18 AM

Noah and Williams

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Dear Marjorie,

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It's very sweet of you to serve up wifely praise for my U.S. News column about Tom Wolfe. As you may recall, it got me some very weird mail at the time--heaps of letters explaining, sometimes patiently and sometimes not, that homosexuality is a disease. My favorite was an envelope that came stuffed with a pamphlet for one of those "get cured of homosexuality" spas in California. Somebody had scrawled on it, "These guys really helped me a lot." And now perhaps I should get off this subject, lest Slate's more intolerantreaders be tempted to repeat history.

Wolfe and women: You have perhaps guessed by now this subject doesn't interest me much. Yes, his hog-stomping panorama of American life doesn't include memorable women--except for Martha Croker, Charlie's cast-off, Richmond-genteel first wife, portrayed, I think, with much poignance and some depth. I loved how Wolfe introduced her, this dignified woman of society, desperately trying to make her fiftysomething body keep up with her exercise class while the audio system blares, "Ram yo' booooooooty" over and over. (An earlier scene had shown black college students who'd descended on Atlanta for Freaknic weekend dancing to the same song as members of the Piedmont Driving Club--Martha's set--watched in mute horror.) True, Martha's presence in the novel serves only one purpose, to show how horrible it is to be a middle-aged woman rejected by your rich husband in favor of a "boy with breasts." Very possibly it isn't quite as horrible as Wolfe says. (I can hear my feminist wife saying: "What about the joys of female companionship? And surely a woman with money and a little charm can get a better boyfriend than that creep Peepgass." Points granted.) Still, Martha's brooding presents a valuable and unmistakably female counterpoint to Charlie's on the subject of diminishing vigor, sexual and otherwise.

I'd like to conclude my half of our book-club chat, which I've enjoyed very much, by inviting you to think some more about Wolfe and journalism. Today I happen to be in San Francisco, a city whose fey surface charms Wolfe evokes thusly in a casual aside in A Man In Full:

"On those magical evenings in San Francisco when the fog rolls in from the Pacific Ocean and people emerge from the hotels on Nob Hill and go for brave walks down the staggeringly steep slopes of Powell Street and shiver deliciously in the chilly air and listen to the happy clapper clangor of the cable cars and the mournful foghorns of the freighters heading out to sea... all at once life is a lovely little operetta from the year 1910...."

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San Francisco figures not at all in Wolfe's book (though much of the action takes place in nearby Oakland), yet Wolfe is so greedy to describe the whole world that he just has to cram this in somehow. The impulse is a journalistic one, and supports your view that Wolfe is in a sense still writing nonfiction. The clumsiest scene in the book has Mayor Wes Jordan explaining the sociological topography of black Atlanta to Roger White--even though White, a lifelong black Atlantan, is surely very familiar with it already. Ultimately, it's hard to resist concluding that Wolfe really was placed on earth to write nonfiction rather than novels. (I say this without conceding for a moment that A Man In Full, for all its flaws, is anything less than first-rate.) I spent some of my flight west struggling to finish The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which, as I said before, is pretty tedious thirty years on. But the same Quality Paperback Book Club edition contained the full text of Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, and at one point I flipped ahead to that, and it was only with some effort that I could get myself to stop reading, even though I've read the thing three or four times before. Maybe that's the best way to describe the difference between Wolfe's fiction and his nonfiction: except for Kool-Aid, it's possible to imagine reading Wolfe's nonfiction over and over and over. Whereas, I'll admit, I don't think I'll ever be tempted to crack The Bonfire of the Vanities or A Man in Full again (except maybe for "The Saddlebags").

Michael Lewis ended his review of A Man In Full in last Sunday's New York Times by observing sadly that this may be the last Wolfe book he ever gets to read, what with Wolfe pushing 70 and his latest novel having taken eleven years to write. I hope that isn't true. It's less likely to be true, I think, if Wolfe declares victory in his stalking of the billion-footed beast and comes home to journalism. According to yesterday's Boston Globe piece (by our friend Mark Feeney), Wolfe is considering for his next project either a novel about educators or a nonfiction book about new research on the brain, the latter presumably drawing on a nature-nurture piece he wrote a couple of years ago for Forbes ASAP. Memo to Wolfe: Ditch the novel, write the nonfiction brain book, or maybe do the education book as nonfiction. You're a fabulous novelist, and A Man In Full will make you rich three times over, but novels take too much of your time, and will never match your best nonfiction. Time to reread your forward to The New Journalism, where you crowed about nonfiction's literary possibilities.

Marjorie: I suspect you believe this even more strongly than I do, since I liked A Man In Full better than you did. Do you have any career advice for Tom Wolfe? Any nonfiction topics you'd like to see him tackle? Anything else on your mind before we end this gig?

It's Been Fun,

Tim

PS Did my book of epigrams from Epictetus arrive from Amazon.com while I was gone? I'd really hoped to have it before now....

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Timothy Noah is a contributing editor at the
Washington Monthly and files frequently to Slate's "Chatterbox." Marjorie Williams is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. This week they discuss A Man in Full, by Tom Wolfe (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 742 pages; $28.95).