Tom Wolfe: Life is good, but for what?
Life in America is good, declares Tom Wolfe, a writer generally not known for his sunny views. But it's far from what it should be.
The author of the best-selling Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff came to Brown University last night - yes, he was wearing the trademark white suit - to sum up "the spirit of the age" in a speech at Salomon Hall.
At a press briefing beforehand, Wolfe, a gentlemanly fellow with a warm smile, explained his measured optimism.
For one thing, he said, the country is well-liked around the world - "Even the French intellectuals have stopped complaining about it. That's a big step."
He described America as a "big locomotive" that can't be derailed by pressures from left and right, and said he doesn't worry about the presidential election. "Oddly enough," he said, "this is really a democracy."
It's true, people are still as venal as he'd described them in Bonfire, a dark look at money, race and class in New York City, he said, but "at least everybody has the freedom to be venal."
One would have to be "expecting the moon" to be glum, considering America's money, power and standing in the world, and especially when you compare it with other societies throughout history, he said.
And yet, he said during the speech, all is not completely well.
He recalled that at the end of the last century, the philosopher Nietzsche predicted society's moral decay, because it no longer believed in God, nor trusted in truth, beauty and other eternal verities. That decay is in full swing, said Wolfe, counting the ways:
*Going into debt - even going bankrupt - is no longer shameful, it's a financial strategy.
*The "sexual revolution," he said, is only "a prim term for the lurid carnival" going on now. Wolfe is left reeling by the concept of co-ed dorms, in which nubile youths "in the season of the rising sap" share bathrooms.
*The CEO and his "trophy wife" are not social pariahs, nor are parents of children once described as "illegitimate."
*Young people who once would have become philosophers are so discouraged by their professors' "rhetorical taffy-pulling" that they turn instead to the neurosciences to explain the soul, mind and psyche.
*Serving on the local museum board shows one's "spiritual worthiness" better than joining a church.
Wolfe predicted that the views of Harvard University author Edward O. Wilson will become more and more influential with time. Wilson's theory, said Wolfe, is that we are all biologically wired to be what we are, that "the fix is in genetically; you can struggle all you want and you can't change it."
Such an attitude is bound to create a tide of cynicism, said Wolfe. Already, millions are so hungry for moral certitude, they are turning to Pentecostal "tub-thumping Christianity" or else such New Age solutions as channeling, as in a spirit.
He recalled that, once, a Zen abbott asked the editor of Time magazine, "Why do you publish it?" After some hemming and hawing, the editor replied that it was for the good of the readers.
"Yes," the abbott responded, putting his finger on it, "but good for what?"
In the same way, said Wolfe, life in America is good - but good for what?
'New Journalism' query
Earlier, during the press briefing in one of Brown's elegant parlors, Wolfe talked with students who are now reading his works in class. One, Amanda Ariscom, a senior English major in tiger-striped velour pants and combat boots, asked about "objectivity" in the "New Journalism" he'd pioneered three decades ago.
Wolfe, who began his writing career as a newspaper reporter in Springfield, Mass., made it clear that although he advocated greater use of dialogue in nonfiction writing and a structure resembling that of a short story, facts are facts, and "reporting is the key to everything."
He then launched into a general critique of his former trade: how sad it is that most cities have but one newspaper (it means reporters don't have to work as hard), and that television and radio rely so much on it.
Asked about the Internet, Wolfe called it "the most fantastic time-waster invented since television," adding, "at this point, I don't want it in my house. My house looks like a computer theme park already."
Student Amy Lorocca, a junior English major, challenged him on this: By going online, she said, you can call up as many different newspapers as you'd like, including the Moscow Times.
"You have a good point," conceded Wolfe, with a nod. "It might improve things."
His advice for budding journalists? "Work harder than they tell you to." He recalled how shocked he was, as a young reporter with the former New York Herald Tribune, to see six reporters from other papers loitering in a room at the federal courthouse, waiting to be fed verdicts by a court official, then copying down whatever the least lazy reporter called in to an editor.
Photographers are no better, he said. In his experience, "they spent most of their time complaining about being sent out of the building. They really thought it was an imposition."
Both The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities were made into films, and Wolfe was asked his thoughts. The former was "not a bad movie," he said, but the latter one was, mostly because the tale was too involved to tell in two hours; he thinks it would have worked better as a serial.
His favorite recent movie is Clueless, which he's seen three times, because of its good satirical writing. He believes, however, that when it comes to explaining things and getting into a character's head, movies are bound to fall short. In The Right Stuff, for instance, all the viewer knows is that Chuck Yeager, spiraling out of control, is in "big trouble," but that then he ejects and makes it.
"It's hard to think of a movie that has had a major effect on the way people think."
Wolfe is working on a new book about the banking and real estate industries. Like his other books, it is based on long reporting.
Banking, he said he's discovered, is "no longer what I always thought it was - a bunch of stuffy people working in a Greek Revival tomb." Rather, the emphasis is on innovation and "mental toughness."
Inevitably, the conversation turned to his white suit, which he said he first adopted out of "poverty," then kept because "suddenly it became fun to get dressed in the morning."
Yesterday, he wore it with black-and-white polka-dot stockings, black-and-white shoes he had made to look like spats, a striped shirt with cuff links and a tie tacked with a smiling half-moon. A black-edged white scarf poked out of his pocket.
What does he do if he spills something on the suit? He is always careful to bring a spare.
Soon enough, a campus spokesman was calling Wolfe to dinner with Brown President Vartan Gregorian and his guests, but a photographer got in one last question: What does he want on his tombstone?
Wolfe thought but a second, then said, "He isn't here."