Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

More mystifying pronouncements from the NYTRB

MY ANNOYANCE AT Martin Amis had not entirely dissipated when the Thomas Mallon review of Tom Wolfe's latest (NYTBR, October 28) began this way: "Tom Wolfe's move from the New Journalism to fiction writing, undertaken a quarter century ago, now seems on a par with Babe Ruth's shift from the pitcher's mound to the regular batting order."

Pardon me--it seems nothing remotely of the kind. Ruth abandoned pitching, something at which he was quite good but not extraordinary, and became one of the very greatest--arguably the greatest--hitter in the history of baseball.

For this analogy to work, Wolfe has to be, as a novelist, on a par with Tolstoy or Proust.  He is not even on a par with John Updike. John O'Hara, perhaps. Perhaps not.  Too close to call.

To say nothing of Mr. Mallon's grave disservice to Wolfe's earlier work. I still meet 20-somethings who have read or plan to read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and you know what?  They should read it.  Better that than yet another volume of Bukowski. Its status as a classic, like that of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is peculiar but secure.  Ditto for Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, The Right Stuff, "The Last American Hero," "The Me Decade," the pieces on Hugh Hefner, Marshall McLuhan, Phil Spector...anyone hoping to understand the American 1960s has to read Tom Wolfe. This amounts to Babe Ruth's pitching career?  Please.

The novels?  No one has to read or ever will have to read the novels. A Man in Full was a bit less interesting than the only moderately interesting Bonfire of the Vanities, and I decided a short ways into I Am Charlotte Simmons that I was not going to bite the baited hook next time.  Excuse me, I think I am going to go enjoy that description in The Right Stuff of landing a plane on an aircraft carrier one more time.