Sunday, May 20, 2018

In Memoriam: Tom Wolfe 1930-2018

“Saturation Reporting”

“The Right Stuff ”

"The Me Decade"

“Good Ol’ Boy”

"Catching Flak"

"Radical Chic"

"Social X-Ray"

"Pushing the Envelope"


"New Journalism"

--Terms coined, or at least popularized, by Tom Wolfe. 

 Wolfe grew up in Richmond, Virginia.

After graduating cum laude, i.e., in the top 25% of his class (Wolfe majored in English), from Washington and Lee University in Virginia, he earned his PhD at... Yale University, but it didn't come easy. He had to rewrite his thesis on American communists, changing it from a subjective to an objective point of view, before it was finally accepted. Wolfe was chagrined that what he believed to be the inferior thesis is what got his his doctorate. The conflict between subjectivity and objectivity, and his predilection for the former over the latter, would one day earn him a regular spot on the best-seller lists. 

 Wolfe decided to go into journalism, first with the Springfield Union in Massachusetts, and then with the Washington Post, first at the city desk, and then as correspondent in Cuba...

 ...earning a Writers Guild award for reporting on a change of administrations.

In 1962, Wolfe moved to New York City, where he would reside for the rest of his days.

In a city of more than 7 million people, it's not always easy to stand out, but the nattily-attired Wolfe found a way, favoring white suits all year long.

 With plenty of time on his hands during a newspaper strike in 1962, Wolfe pitched a story to Esquire about Southern California's hot rod and custom car culture. But once he got the assignment, he procrastinated, feeling the who-what-where-when-and-why mechanics of traditional journalism that he had always chafed against wouldn't do the subject justice. With a deadline looming, he decided to let his reportorial hair down. 

The first good look I had at customized cars was at an event called a "Teen Fair," held in Burbank, a suburb of Los Angeles beyond Hollywood. This was a wild place to be taking a look at art objects—eventually, I should say, you have to reach the conclusion that these customized cars are art objects, at least if you use the standards applied in a civilized society. But I will get to that in a moment.

Anyway, about noon you drive up to a place that looks like an outdoor amusement park, and there are three serious-looking kids, like the cafeteria committee in high school, taking tickets, but the scene inside is quite mad. Inside, two things hit you. The first is a huge platform a good seven feet off the ground with a hully-gully band—everything is electrified, the bass, the guitars, the saxophones—and (two) behind the band, on the platform, about two hundred kids are doing frantic dances called the hully-gully, the bird, and the shampoo. As I said, it's noontime. The dances the kids are doing are very jerky. The boys and girls don't touch, not even with their hands. They just ricochet around. Then you notice that all the girls are dressed exactly alike. They have bouffant hairdos—all of them—and slacks that are, well, skintight does not get the idea across; it's more the conformation than how tight the slacks are. It's as if some lecherous old tailor with a gluteus-maximus fixation designed them, striation by striation.

A new style was born--or I should say new styles, as in the next few years Wolfe would write in whatever idiom the subculture he was reporting on required.

A decade later, Wolfe and others would call it "New Journalism", what we today might call "creative nonfiction", the practice of using certain literary techniques usually found in fiction to report on something that takes place in real life. It wasn't necessarily as new as all that. You could trace it all the way back to Mark Twain's Life in the Mississippi (1883.) More recently, but prior to the 1960s, there had been The Cruise of the Snark (1911) by Jack London, The Education of Henry Adams (1918) by Henry Adams, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) by Gertrude Stein, and Hiroshima (1946) by John Hersey. But those were few and far between. It was really in the 1960s that the genre picked up steam. Among those working, and writing on, the same side of the street as Wolfe were Norman Mailer (Armies of the Night, 1968), Joan Didion (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968), Gay Talese ("Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" Esquire, 1966), George Plimpton (Paper Lion, 1966),  and, most successfully, Truman Capote (In Cold Blood, 1966.) But Wolfe pulled ahead of all of them when he turned to a literary and artistic movement that...

..a first seemed like just a passing fad...

 ...but instead was the harbinger of a cultural movement that came to characterize (and caricature) the 1960s. 

Ken Kesey, best known for the 1960 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. That is, as an AUTHOR he's best known for. But by the end of the '60s, he may have achieved even greater fame as a CHARACTER in a book. Here's how it came about. In 1965, Kesey was arrested for possession of marijuana. There's nothing like a celebrity behind bars to attract the attention of the media, and one member of the media particularly attracted to the story was Tom Wolfe. During a jailhouse interview, Kesey told Wolfe an amazing story of how he had spent the last few years. Back in the 1950s, when he was working as a night aid at a veterans hospital, he agreed to serve as a guinea pig in a...

...government-funded study of the effects of a hallucinatory drug called...

 ...lysergic acid diethylamide, or, for short...


In recent years the CIA has come under criticism for the use of torture, but back in the late 1950s, Kesey had no complaint about his treatment at the secretive agency's hands. Indeed, he enjoyed the experience so much, he decided to share it with the world. With the money he earned from Cuckoo's Nest, he bought a bus, name it Further, had it painted psychedelic colors (before the term psychedelic colors had even been coined) and enlisted a bunch of hippie-types, whom he dubbed Merry Pranksters, to travel around the Great State of California and beyond, and help turn people on to the then-legal drug in staged events known as...

 ..."acid tests".

At one such event, refreshments were served.

Kesey served six months at a prison farm, where he was frequently visited by Wolfe. The journalist was also interviewed many of Kesey's friends.

In case you're wondering why I brought up the Beats earlier, it's because I've always felt the book Wolfe would eventually write about all this bore a slight resemblance to Jack Kerouac's 1956 novel On the Road, and indeed there was a connecting strand. Kerouac's fictional Dean Moriarty was based on the nonfictional writer and bus driver Neal Cassady. The title of Wolfe's On the Road update?


They were...well, Beautiful People! - not 'students', 'clerks', 'salesgirls', 'executive trainees' - Christ, don't give me your occupation-game labels! We are Beautiful People, ascendant from your robot junkyard

Everybody, everybody everywhere, has his own movie going, his own scenario, and everybody is acting his movie out like mad, only most people don’t know that is what they’re trapped by, their little script

The world was simply and sheerly divided into 'the aware', those who had the experience of being vessels of the divine, and a great mass of 'the unaware', 'the unmusical', 'the unattuned.'


The Pranksters never talked about synchronicity by name, but they were more and more attuned to the principle. Obviously, according to this principle, man does not have free will. There is no use in his indulging in a lifelong competition to change the structure of the little environment he seems to be trapped in. But one could see the larger pattern and move with it - Go with the flow! - and accept it and rise above one's immediate environment and even alter it by accepting the larger pattern and growing with it.

...a perception of the cosmic unity of this higher level. And a feeling of timelessness, the feeling that what we know as time is only the result of a naive faith in causality - the notion that A in the past caused B in the present, which will cause C in the future, when actually A, B, and C are all part of a pattern that can be truly understood only by opening the doors of perception and experiencing it... in this moment... this supreme moment... this Kairos.

Somewhere in that journalistic account, I'm sure there was a who-what-where-when-and-why. 

Did Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test? One of the Merry Pranksters is named Zonker.

New York Philharmonic conductor and Broadway composer Leonard Bernstein would have turned 100 this year. Back in 1970, when he was still in his early 50s, he and his wife Felicia decided to throw a fundraiser for the Black Panthers, some of whose members were under arrest and awaiting trial for conspiring to kill policemen, set off bombs, and other violent mischief. As some of the bails were set as high as $100,000, the Bernsteins saw it as a civil liberties issue, and invited about 90 well-heeled guests, including Richard Avedon, Otto Preminger, Betty Comden, and Aaron Copland to their Park Avenue residence to hear the Panthers plead their case. Tom Wolfe wasn't invited but was let in anyway. The Black Panthers mingling with society swells struck Wolfe as incongruous, or, to put it bluntly, funny:

 Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. These are nice. Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts. Very tasty. Very subtle. It’s the way the dry sackiness of the nuts tiptoes up against the dour savor of the cheese that is so nice, so subtle. Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d’oeuvre trail? Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels wrapped in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at this very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons . . . The butler will bring them their drinks . . . Deny it if you wish to, but such are the pensées métaphysiques that rush through one’s head on these Radical Chic evenings just now in New York. For example, does that huge Black Panther there in the hallway, the one shaking hands with Felicia Bernstein herself, the one with the black leather coat and the dark glasses and the absolutely unbelievable Afro, Fuzzy Wuzzy-scale in fact—is he, a Black Panther, going on to pick up a Roquefort cheese morsel rolled in crushed nuts from off the tray, from a maid in uniform, and just pop it down the gullet without so much as missing a beat of Felicia’s perfect Mary Astor voice. . . .

 As strange as that gathering might have seemed to Wolfe, Lenny's instincts proved correct, as the 21 Panthers accused of wrongdoing were acquitted on all charges. But by that time the term "radical chic" was already part of the lexicon. And in coming years there would be such variations as "terrorist chic", "libertarian chic", "killer chic", and "heroin chic".

In 1972, Wolfe was assigned by Rolling Stone to cover the launch of Apollo 17, the last time a man went to the moon. This got him thinking about the space program as a whole, and decided to write a book about not only the original Mercury Seven astronauts, but also the more gravity-bound test pilots who helped pave the way, such as Chuck Yeager, the first mas to break the sound barrier.

 Nevertheless, there was something extraordinary about it when a man so young, with so little experience in flight test, was selected to go to Muroc Field in California for the XS–1 project. Muroc was up in the high elevations of the Mojave Desert. It looked like some fossil landscape that had long since been left behind by the rest of terrestrial evolution. It was full of huge dry lake beds, the biggest being Rogers Lake. Other than sagebrush the only vegetation was Joshua trees, twisted freaks of the plant world that looked like a cross between cactus and Japanese bonsai. They had a dark petrified green color and horribly crippled branches. At dusk the Joshua trees stood out in silhouette on the fossil wasteland like some arthritic nightmare. In the summer the temperature went up to 110 degrees as a matter of course, and the dry lake beds were covered in sand, and there would be windstorms and sandstorms right out of a Foreign Legion movie. At night it would drop to near freezing, and in December it would start raining, and the dry lakes would fill up with a few inches of water, and some sort of putrid prehistoric shrimps would work their way up from out of the ooze, and sea gulls would come flying in a hundred miles or more from the ocean, over the mountains, to gobble up these squirming little throwbacks. A person had to see it to believe it: flocks of sea gulls wheeling around in the air out in the middle of the high desert in the dead of winter and grazing on antediluvian crustaceans in the primordial ooze. 

 After all, the right stuff was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life (by riding on top of a Redstone or Atlas rocket). Any fool could do that (and many fools would no doubt volunteer, given the opportunity), just as any fool could throw his life away in the process. No, the idea (as all pilots understood) was that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back at the last yawning moment—but how in the name of God could you either hang it out or haul it back if you were a lab animal sealed in a pod?

“Well … things are beginning to stack up a little,” said Gordo. It was the same old sod-hut drawl. He sounded like the airline pilot who, having just slipped two seemingly certain mid-air collisions and finding himself in the midst of a radar fuse-out and control-tower dysarthria, says over the intercom: “Well, ladies and gentlemen, we’ll be busy up here in the cockpit making our final approach into Pittsburgh, and so we want to take this opportunity to thank you for flying American and we hope we’ll see you again real soon.” It was second-generation Yeager, now coming from earth orbit. Cooper was having a good time. He knew everybody was in a sweat down below. But this was what he and the boys had wanted all along, wasn’t it?

Truman Capote and Norman Mailer started out as fiction writers, and then gravitated to non-fiction. Tom Wolfe did just the opposite. Sometime in the 1980s, it occurred to him that novelistic techniques might work best in an actual novel:

 Sherman McCoy, a successful Wall Street bond trader who likes to think of himself as a Master of the Universe, finds out he's anything but when he takes the wrong exit off the freeway in a sprawling socioeconomic comedy that skews the rich and the poor alike (though not always to the same degree.)

 [H]e could see the island of Manhattan off to the left. The towers were jammed together so tightly, he could feel the mass and stupendous weight. Just think of the millions, from all over the globe, who yearned to be on that island, in those towers, in those narrow streets! There it was, the Rome, the Paris, the London of the twentieth century, the city of ambition, the dense magnetic rock, the irresistible destination of all those who insist on being where things are happening-and he was among the victors!

 Something hits the Mayor on the shoulder. It hurts like hell! There on the floor-a jar of mayonnaise, an eight-ounce jar of Hellmann's mayonnaise. Half full! Half consumed! Somebody has thrown a half-eaten jar of Hellmann's mayonnaise at him! In that instant the most insignificant thing takes over his mind. Who in the name of God would bring a half-eaten eight-ounce jar of Hellmann's mayonnaise to a public meeting?

How the stories circulated on every campus! If you weren’t making $250,000 a year within five years, than you were either grossly stupid or grossly lazy. That was the word. By age 30, $500,000–and that sum had the taint of the mediocre. By age forty you were either making a million a year or you were timid and incompetent. Make it now! That motto burned in every heart, like myocarditis.

 Then it dawned on Kramer. The cops weren’t all that much different from the assistant D.A.s. It was the muck factor. The cops got tired of packing blacks and Latins off to jail all day, too. It was even worse for them, because they had to dive deeper into the muck to do it. The only thing that made it constructive was the idea that they were doing it for somebody—for the decent people. So they opened their eyes, and now they were attuned to all the good people with colored skin…who rose to the top…during all this relentless stirring of the muck… You couldn’t exactly call it enlightenment, thought Kramer, but it was a fucking start.

 If a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged, a liberal is a conservative who's been arrested.

Subjectivity vs. Objectivity. Tom Wolfe favored the former, but I would argue that he achieved both. Subjectivity is something written from a particular point of view, and Objectivity is said to be the opposite. Well, everything Wolfe wrote tended to be from the point of view of whatever person, or persons, he was writing about, so that makes it subjective. But as that person's or persons point of view was rarely Wolfe's own,  he had to maintain some kind of objectivity to get it right. After all, Wolfe wasn't a hot rod enthusiast, record producer, good ol' boy NASCAR driver, Merry Prankster (he never even tried LSD), astronaut, or Wall Street bond trader, even if reading what he wrote about those folks, he might convince you otherwise. Though a book about it made him rich, Wolfe was never a true counterculture figure like Hunter S. Thompson. In fact, he seems to have been skeptical about the social upheaval of the 1960s. Beginning with Radical Chic in 1970, a certain reactionary tone seeped into his work, causing some critics to label him a conservative, a charge he always denied. In a 2012 interview, Wolfe claimed with the exception of George W. Bush in 1992, every time he had voted for President, that person had won. Assuming that he started voting soon after turning 21 (pre-26th Amendment), that would mean Wolfe chose Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and again in '56; John F. Kennedy in 1960; Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964; Richard M. Nixon in 1968 and again in 1972; Jimmy Carter in 1976; Ronald Reagan in 1980 and again in '84; George H.W. Bush in 1988; Bill Clinton in 1996; George W. Bush in 2000 and again in '04; and Barack Obama in 2008. Like Chrissie Hynde, the middle of the road is where you'd most likely find Wolfe.

Whatever his politics, Tom Wolfe was no conservative when it came to prose. There he was a true radical. And, for a time, it made him chic. 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Vital Viewing (Helping Hand Edition)

Actor Harvey Keitel was born on this day in 1939. In the first of two clips I want to show you, he talks about the assist he gave to...

...a young video store clerk looking to break into the movie business:

Keitel looks, sounds, and dresses too much like one of the Mafia types he's played so often for me to even think of raiding his refrigerator.

A touching scene from Reservoir Dogs:

Tarantino must have seen the better side of Keitel's nature. After all, he got in and out of that refrigerator in one piece!

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

This Day in History

Welcome to your life
There's no turning back

Even while we sleep

We will find You acting on your best behavior
Turn your back on mother nature
Everybody wants to rule the world

It's my own desire
It's my own remorse
Help me to decide

Help me make the most Of freedom and of pleasure
Nothing ever lasts forever
Everybody wants to rule the world

There's a room where the light won't find you
Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down
When they do, I'll be right behind you

So glad we've almost made it
So sad they had to fade it
Everybody wants to rule the world

I can't stand this indecision
Married with a lack of vision
Everybody wants to rule the world

Say that you'll never, never, never, need it
One headline, why believe it?

Everybody wants to rule the world

 All for freedom and for pleasure

Nothing ever lasts forever

Everybody wants to rule the world

On May 8, 1945, the plug was finally pulled on the Nazi war machine.