How does he get away with it? Ever since Bonfire of the Vanities, I have wondered at Tom Wolfe’s success. The success itself is well deserved: Wolfe is a dazzling writer, without peer as an observer of contemporary American life. But can’t the brilliant social and literary critics of New York figure out what he is up to? Have they ever actually read his books? (A suspicion I have long held about some professors is that they discourse pompously upon classic works that they know only by the labels pasted on them by others.) In Bonfire, Wolfe exposed the warts beneath the expert makeup on the shining countenances of every institution and nearly every major ethnic group in New York City, revealing the self-appointed, supreme American beauty for what she is—a decayed, pox-ridden harlot. The novel is a rollicking good story that one does not have to be a New York Review of Books reader to enjoy. But as George Garrett has pointed out, coming from a Southerner like Wolfe, such an attack is a breach of manners equivalent to a dagger between the ribs.
When the movie version of Bonfire (a deserved flop) came out, my puzzlement was not satisfied. Every major character in the book—every telling point in the book—was transformed. In the novel, the Southern belle who catalyzes the plot is unscrupulous, but intelligent and forceful; in the movie, she is a simpering idiot. The unsympathetic Jewish judge is changed to a sympathetic black one. Had Hollywood caught on and deliberately blunted the dagger? Or was it simply another case of the usual vulgarization of text?
Then came A Man in Full. Surely they could see it now? They could, of course, pass the novel off as an expose of the always despicable South (the repulsive world of New South businessmen, racism, college athletics, and phony commercial religion) if they hadn’t read the book. But the most telling mask-snatchings in A Man in Full reveal the proletarianization of the white working class in California, the social wreckage left behind by the flower children, and a less-than-complimentary view of upwardly mobile blacks and immigrants. One is ordinarily allowed to write about none of these—except in the style of Pollyanna.
Maybe some of them are catching on? In “My Three Stooges,” Wolfe hilariously recounts the efforts of Mailer, Irving, and Updike to damn A Man in Full, up to and including spluttering obscene harangues on television that were intended to convince the world that Wolfe is not, like them, a real writer and that his works really don’t rank as American literature, at least among “us” (the New York intelligentsia who really count).
The essays (if that is the right term) and one fiction story in Hooking Up are, without exception, gems of observation, understanding, and style. They bring Wolfe’s laser beam further into forbidden territory, revealing still more unfashionable facets of American life: The catastrophic collapse of culture and morals is the overriding motif Wolfe, in his reportage, traces significant phenomena, the kind that “intellectuals” always miss: the engineers and entrepreneurs who created Silicon Valley and the revolution it symbolizes; the thinkers (including Edward O. Wilson) who have brought the attention of the world, for better or worse, back from nurture to the centrality of nature; the deplorable state of American art, architecture, education, and the novel.
Beneath the motif of decadence lies another, softer one: that of a society living on the remnants of Christianity—the Midwestern Protestant background of the pioneer computer geniuses is a case in point. And in the story “Ambush at Fort Bragg,” Wolfe exposes—beyond mercy—the dishonesty, ignorance, and egotism behind the production of television “news.” If they don’t get the message now, they never will; and I expect the television celebrities are too far gone in self-worship and empire-think ever to see themselves in the stark light of truth.
Anyone concerned about the state of education in America will do well to heed Wolfe’s treatment of academia and “intellectuals.” Another one, right between the ribs! Intellectualism—the cult of ignorant indignation—amounts to the seeking of sainthood by revolting against a society that is, supposedly, ignorant and clueless. For Wolfe, however, the self-appointed saints have missed the real point: How could they not notice and give credit to America’s astounding successes—the innovation, the democratic spirit, the freedom, the unimaginable affluence of the common people?
Hilaire Belloc, who hated dons (he lost out on an appointment at Oxford), maintained that they all had something wrong with them—a stutter, a limp, the inability to chat up a mere slip of a girl. That is not entirely true anymore, thanks to the American fetishization of education and to Sputnik, which resulted in the pouring of billions of dollars into “higher” education, drawing to academia an infestation of well-groomed parasites far worse than those fumbling dons—con artists, rakes, bureaucrats, politicians.
James Hynes’ The Lecturer’s Tale plunges delightfully into that world, via the English faculty of the fictional (but representative) Midwestern University of Minnesota. The Lecturer is a naive academic whose career is going down the plumbing system because he really loves and believes in literature and wants to impart his knowledge to the young.
In the course of a plot that includes supernatural elements reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’s fiction, Hynes lays bare, with only slightly heightened caricature, all of the successful types in present-day institutions of “higher” education, where reputation bears not the slightest relationship to either scholarship or the wellbeing of students, much less the transmission of Western civilization. These characters are only slightly heightened by caricature: After all, we live in a country where Stanley Fish is paid more than a quarter-million dollars a year as a professor of literature to teach that literature has no meaning.
Evelyn Waugh once wrote that his novels could not properly be described as satires because satire involves pointing out the gap between standards and behavior, and he was writing about people who had no standards. By Waugh’s rule, we can’t call The Lecturer’s Tale a satire. Besides, it’s hard to satirize what is already its own parody. Yes, it really is that bad. As the Australians say: “Too true.”
[Hooking Up, by Tom Wolfe (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux) 293 pp., $25.00]
[The Lecturer’s Tale, by James Hynes (New York: Picador USA) 388 pp., $25.00]