By James Woolcott
The New York Review of Books, November 4, 1982
The Purple Decades: A Reader
by Tom WolfeFarrar, Straus and Giroux, 396 pp., $17.50
Not since Garry Wills uncorked his rather fanciful notions on the origins of the cold war in the opening pages of Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time has a book been so fatefully torpedoed by its own introduction. Subtitled “A Reader,” The Purple Decades presents an ample selection of Tom Wolfe’s writings from the Sixties and Seventies—a bewilderingly familiar selection, considering how many of Wolfe’s fugitive pieces on fashion and pop remain uncollected. Rather than spruce up the book with some of Wolfe’s lesser-known sorties (such as his tribute to the photographer Marie Cosindas, which appeared in American Photographer, or his meditation on schlock movie violence in the July 1967 Esquire, which in many ways anticipated the current rage in “splatter” films), The Purple Decades safely sticks to what one might call Tom Wolfe’s Greatest Hits: his famous profiles of Baby Jane Holzer and racecar driver Junior Johnson, his explorations of radical chic, the right stuff, and the Me Decade, and highlights from his recent sprees on the absurd excesses of art-think, The Painted Wordand From Bauhaus to Our House.
Since all of Wolfe’s books are still in print, it can hardly be argued that The Purple Decades is needed to rescue Wolfe’s work from the murks of neglect. Nor has the book been assembled merely as a sampler. No, the book’s ambitious title suggests that this collection provides an overview of a rambunctious era in the dandyish, frisking manner of Thomas Beer’s The Mauve Decade. Inside, the book gives off deeper rumbles of ambition: The Purple Decades is intended to be a plinth on which Tom Wolfe’s reputation will forever rest. For a suitable inscription, someone commissioned the services of Joe David Bellamy, an editor and teacher from St. Lawrence University who evidently believes that Tom Wolfe’s writing is the dishiest thing since sherbet. His enthusiasm proves to be dire.
Bellamy, who had an entertaining chat with Wolfe in his 1974 anthology The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers, uses his introduction to The Purple Decades as an occasion to induct his hero into the ranks of the almighty. Not content to celebrate Wolfe as a flash genius, Bellamy drapes the author in the robes of a classic and shoos away all pigeons from his path. “All these years,” argues Bellamy, “Tom Wolfe has been writing Comedy with a capital C, Comedy like that of Henry Fielding and Jane Austen and Joseph Addison, like that of Thackeray and Shaw and Mark Twain. Like these writers, Tom Wolfe might be described as a brooding humanistic presence.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pair of unsuspecting sentences so bulging with weird, insupportable claims. Leaving aside the ineffable distinction between comedy with a capital C and comedy with a small c (where does this leave Ronald Firbank? Milton Berle?), the truth is that the flicking banter of Jane Austen is a very different affair from the haystack romps of Henry Fielding, and that neither writer was much given to humanistic brooding, for which we can all give thanks. Certainly nothing in Wolfe’s work suggests that he drinks in the tonic summer air of Austen and Fielding, or that he fancies the shellcracking ironies of George Bernard Shaw’s exercises in instruction. “A brooding humanistic presence” might aptly describe the spirit of Norman Cousins drifting through the corridors of the UN, but it doesn’t seem quite the right aureole to hang over Tom Wolfe’s head as he cages the action at Leonard Bernstein’s duplex, savoring the subtle crunch of the nut-flecked cheese morsels, the actressy tilt of a rich deb’s chin. His mischief—his comedy—is a creature of fangs and quick pounces.
Inexplicably, Bellamy seems to think that the most appropriate way to install Wolfe’s work on the top shelf of literature is to file away at those fangs and turn Wolfe into a soft-chomping smoothie. Wolfe’s humor, he hastens to explain, seldom carries a mean, snappish bite; it’s really meant to be a roguish kiss of affection. “The satirical element in Wolfe’s sort of comedic writing is most often sunny, urbane, and smiling. Like all Horatian comedy [!], it aims to reform through laughter that is never vindictive or merely personal….”
Wolfe is often at his funniest when he’s being an irresponsible imp, flying on the wing of a wicked whim, setting a scene down to its tiniest, most telling detail and then letting the laughter build from a snicker to a rich, mad cackle.
This, too, seems to me an entirely mistaken notion of Wolfe’s keen, prickly talent. The cheerleader poet of pop hedonism, Tom Wolfe never gives in to shudders of Swiftian disgust or dances along the crest of the abyss: his satire is free of fever blisters and black depths. But this hardly means that the firecrackers he sets off beneath people’s feet are intended to awaken them to the errors of their ways. Wolfe is often at his funniest when he’s being an irresponsible imp, flying on the wing of a wicked whim, setting a scene down to its tiniest, most telling detail and then letting the laughter build from a snicker to a rich, mad cackle. In his famous account of Leonard Bernstein’s party for the Black Panthers, Wolfe’s ability to flit in and out of his cast’s minds enables him to pin donkey ears on all sorts of fashionable pseuds. Sample entry: “Frankly, Jean vanden Heuvel—that’s Jean there in the hallway giving everyone her famous smile, in which her eyes narrow down to f/16—frankly, Jean tends too much toward the funky fallacy.” With those two “frankly’s”, Wolfe takes on the insinuating tone of a bitchy bystander, and the effect is deflatingly comic. Far from being lofty and Horatian, Wolfe can be a darting little infighter. When Tom Wolfe is in top prankster form, his victims give off the hiss of escaping gas.
In recent years, however, Wolfe has turned himself into a mod Tory—the clown prince of neoconservatism—and his humor has become forced, curdled, tendentious. The weakest and most hootingly shrill essays in The Purple Decades are those in which Wolfe hitches up his boxing trunks to have another bruising go at radical chic. “Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine,” for example, is an extended wheeze of thinnish whimsy about a materialistic American author who’s having an anxiety attack tapping his monthly expenses into his desk calculator: “…$248!—for one pair of shoes!—from England!—handmade!” The essay’s limp and rather obvious punch line is that this status-hungry up-start hopes to keep himself in clover by knocking out a book titled (the caps are Wolfe’s) RECESSION AND REPRESSION: POLICE STATE AMERICA AND THE SPIRIT OF ’76.
In “The Intelligent Coed’s Guide to America,” Wolfe checks into what Gore Vidal has called the Hotel Hilton Kramer in order to tweak the noses of the leftward intelligentsia yet again and pay Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn a rather thick tribute. Now, I happen to be more than a little fond of right-wing comic crank scourges—Auberon Waugh, Malcolm Muggeridge—but Wolfe’s eagerness to hammer away at the ideological anvil is not only coarsening his comic gifts but is leading him into the company of writers far less talented.
In the July 1982 issue of The American Spectator, for example, Wolfe dashed off a rather offhand appreciation of Jeffrey Bernard and Taki, the authors of a recent book titled High Life/Low Life. High Life/Low Life consists of selected columns by Bernard and Taki which appeared originally in the London Spectator. Taki, who also skewers the rich in the pages of Esquire, is a foppish scenemaker who captures Wolfe’s fancy because he’s such a bombastic foe of all that is trendy and socialistic. “In Taki’s book the ultimate decadence of people of wealth and power consists of caving in to feminism, pacifism, or other forms of Left chic rather than defending their own values or even their own class interests.” Jean vanden Heuvel and her f/16 squint not-withstanding, the rich have always seemed to be more than able to defend their values and class interests. What Taki does at the top of his voice is to tell the well-off that they should quit currying to the trendy and unwashed and instead coast through life in a creamy, guiltless groove. Dig your privileges, seems to be Taki’s motto, a sentiment Tom Wolfe seconds with a smart, knowing nod.
Tom Wolfe clearly considers Taki to be a capital fellow—so outrageous, so … droll—but he never stops to ponder whether or not some of those “values” over which Taki pulls sentry duty may in fact be indefensible. For Taki is not merely a delightful bounder railing away at feminists, trade unionists, and uppity wogs; he also makes noises notably contemptuous of Semites. Or at least that’s how I interpret some of his coarser comments. Vacationing in Gstaad last winter, Taki said of the Arabs at the ski lodge, “They are desert people, with hawk-eyes, hooked noses and fleshy features. Switzerland’s traditional neutrality, however, seems to be working miracles through osmosis, as the camel people’s best friends here in Gstaad are the descendants of those who crucified Jesus Christ 1,982 years ago and they work for Garrard, Van Cleef, Cartier and Harry Winston.” I submit that a crack like that betrays more of “the ultimate decadence of people of wealth and power” than all of the flighty flirtations with radical chic Tom Wolfe has witnessed in his blithe travels.
Tom Wolfe’s best writing is all at the same clamorous pitch, a succession of kettledrum booms and flying cymbals, and one’s eardrums begin to throb under the onslaught of all those italics, all—those—dashes, all those flip exclamation m!a!r!k!s!
None of which is to suggest that Wolfe himself is ever nasty about Semites, merely that he’s now so unbuttoned in his desire to take pokes at the left that he’s getting a little careless in his allies. He’s spent so much time in the Hotel Hilton Kramer that he doesn’t much care what he chucks out the window to bean a passing socialist. Of course, Wolfe has always been pro-capitalist—the booms and fizzles of capitalism make possible those baroque freaks of fashion which result in a skinny-minny like Baby Jane Holzer traipsing across the pages of Vogue, a vinyl wallet manufacturer frugging his brains out down on the disco floor (“…his red eyes beaming out of his walnut-shell eyelids”).
Wolfe loves sham and exhibitionism and daredevilry—extravagant shows of self—and boomtown capitalism creates the greatest arena for all this brazen strutting about. But as Wolfe has lost touch with the tingles of pop spectacle, he’s turned more rigid in his responses and thinking; he’s become even fonder of conspiratorial thesis-mongering, shaving the evidence to prove that modern painting was bullied into an abstract cul-de-sac by a handful of pedantic tastemakers (The Painted Word) and that the sterilities of modern architecture are traceable to a con job cooked up by a bunch of egghead expatriates (From Bauhaus to Our House).
Almost needless to add, Joe David Bellamy takes not the scantest notice in his introduction that Wolfe’s writing has taken such a severe ideological swerve. Into a galeful of contrary evidence he calmly asserts, “[Nowhere] will we discover, in Wolfe’s work, any sign at all of a political or social activist who might argue on behalf of a particular party, issue, system, creed, or cause.” He seems to think of Tom Wolfe as a hepcat Mark Twain, just another caring rascal in a cream-white suit.
The reason Joe David Bellamy’s introduction seems so sorely egregious is that it’s really the only new and thought-making thing about this ambitious to-do. Yes, the book buzzes with inspired images and detonating wisecracks, with rude, larking asides and cresting surfs of rhetoric which come down in a tumultuous crash. And, yes, at his best Tom Wolfe seems capable of shooting sparks from his fingertips, as in his justly famous opening to “The Girl of the Year”:
Bangs manes bouffants beehives Beatle caps butter faces brush-on lashes decal eyes puffy sweaters French thrust bras flailing leather blue jeans stretch pants stretch jeans honeydew bottoms eclair shanks elf boots ballerinas Knight slippers, hundreds of them, these flaming little buds, bobbing and screaming, rocketing around inside the Academy of Music Theater underneath that vast old mouldering cherub dome up there—aren’t they super-marvelous!
But for all the fireworks and finger-popping glee, a nodding tedium came over me as I inched my way through The Purple Decades—“I’ve read all this stuff before,” I huffed as I alighted once again on the chapter about electricafro’d blacks trooping downtown to mau-mau the flak-catchers. Not only have Tom Wolfe’s Greatest Hits never been long off the turntable, but there’s also a certain shrill, monotonous tone which emerges when his hits are anthologized. Reading a collection like (say) Rebecca West: A Celebration, one captures West in a variety of moods and attitudes, now critical, now quarrelsome, now content to dawdle and graze. But Tom Wolfe’s best writing is all at the same clamorous pitch, a succession of kettledrum booms and flying cymbals, and one’s eardrums begin to throb under the onslaught of all those italics, all—those—dashes, all those flip exclamation m!a!r!k!s! His writing rattles the china long after he’s left the room, and one begins to pine for a subduing lull of calm.
The Purple Decades is, finally, all too precipitous. Tom Wolfe is unquestionably a brash, funny, resourceful reporter and commentator, one of the few writers in America whose work commands an immediate eye-click of attention. Faces skyward, we can only wonder from which bough he’ll next swoop in search of virgin prey. But, really, it’s far too early to know whether The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (excerpted here) is a true landmark of brain-fried Sixties sensibility, or will prove to be a wordmonster as unreadable as the worst of William Gaddis; whether The Right Stuff (likewise excerpted) is the classic of derring-do that its champions claim, or whether its snobbery and whipped-up histrionics will some day reduce it to a book of stray brilliancies, in the manner of Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon. It’s certainly far too early for Tom Wolfe to be monumentalizing himself and his achievements in veiny marble.
Eager to place Wolfe in the saddle with Hazlitt, Bellamy concludes his introduction, “No other writer of our time has aspired to capture the fabled Spirit of the Age so fully and has succeeded so well”—and this, too, sounds like hasty hype. If Tom Wolfe’s reputation continues to thrive, it will be despite the bossiness of The Purple Decades, not because of it.
[Photo Credit: Vernon Merritt/LIFE]