Q&A: TOM WOLFE

Between fact and fiction

December 14 1987
Q&A: TOM WOLFE

Between fact and fiction

December 14 1987

Between fact and fiction

Q&A: TOM WOLFE

One of North America’s best-selling nonfiction writers, Tom Wolfe, 56, has coined such widely used phrases as “The Me Decade” and “The Right Stuff.” In the 1960s Wolfe borrowed from the narrative technique of the novel to develop a style of journalism— called the “New Journalism"—with which he chronicled the 1960s counterculture in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. His 1979 book about the U.S. space program, The Right Stuff, was made into a hit movie of the same name. And with this year’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe’s first novel, he has served up a savage slice of New York City. Wolfe is also the writer and narrator of the documentary 0, Canada! Eh?, which was made for Toronto station CFTO TV and aired on Nov. 22. Maclean’s correspondent Paul Kaihla recently interviewed Wolfe while he was in San Francisco publicizing his novel.

Maclean’s: You once predicted that journalists would “wipe out the novel as literature’s main event. ” Why have you now written a novel?

Wolfe: I decided to write one novel as a detour. After all the time I have shot off my mouth about fiction versus nonfiction and what a mediocre job novelists were doing, I thought the time had come for me to take a shot at it. I also wanted to prove that it was possible to write a novel of large scope, based on reporting about the last half of the 20th century. There is an idea in fashion in the literary world that says that it is impossible to write a highly realistic big novel because the realistic novel—or the naturalistic novel, as [19thcentury French writer] Emile Zola called it—was the child of the 19thcentury industrial bourgeoisie. As the industrial bourgeoisie disintegrates, its child dies with it. So if you try to do a slice of life of a disintegrating society, you have a slice of chaos, which is meaningless. It is amazing what a grip that notion has on literary people. It is nonsense. Who really thinks that the industrial bourgeoisie is finished? I do not see any signs of it.

Maclean’s: In Bonfire, a prominent bond trader is brought down by a black demagogue and his political machine. Is that meant to portray a disintegrating society?

Wolfe: No, it is not apocalyptic. The book is an attempt to show the interconnections in a huge metropolis in the

1980s, to draw New York, high and low, together—the old WASP elite and the [underclass] of the South Bronx. It is a society where the tension is much greater than it was 25 years ago. Maclean’s: Why is that?

Wolfe: There are really three factors. The tremendous prosperity of the in-

‘ To me, satire is where you take the facts and push them to a ludicrous extreme. My novel is based on reporting ’

vestment banking industry has created a money fever that reaches down into every level of the population. In the Bronx housing projects, I saw boys walking around with Mercedes-Benz hood ornaments around their necks. These boys know what a Mercedes costs and that they will never be able to afford one, but they take what they

can get—a hood ornament. A second thing is the unprecedented licentiousness. Twenty years ago the shark—the financier who gobbles up a company that has been decades in the making, chews it up and spits out the component parts—would have been ostracized. Today, no social gathering is a success unless you have at least one shark on hand. It lends a kind of bloody vitality to the proceedings. The third factor is overt racial and ethnic hostility. It has always been there, but the lid started coming off during the 1960s antipoverty program, when the federal government quite intentionally said, “Okay, it is time for you to organize yourselves along ethnic lines.” Maclean’s: Are those character traits a product of the Reagan revolution? Wolfe: The Reagan administration has not changed anything. In the late 1960s and 1970s, a lot of people made money, but it was very unfashionable among educated people to flaunt wealth. It was bad form to be ostentatious. There was the legacy of the New Left, the antiwar movement and the various self-awareness movements of the 1970s. It was the era of the debutante in blue jeans. That whole thing finally wore out. And it became okay to do the normal thing: if you’ve got it, flaunt it. I think Ronald Reagan was a beneficiary of the change in atti-

tude rather than the cause of the change.

Maclean’s: You have been called a social satirist. Is Bonfire a satire?

Wolfe: To me, a satire is where you take the facts and push them to some ludicrous extreme. My novel is based on reporting. I ran into people from the nicer neighborhoods in the North Bronx who would travel to Wall Street on the subway. But they were afraid of these packs of kids. They would get into a disguise, dress up like bums with no money.

So I created one such character who gets mugged by a group of black youths on the subway. This is not satire. I was racing at full speed just trying to catch up with what is actually going on.

Maclean’s: You have now begun to refer to the 1980s as “the decade of plutography.”

What does the term mean?

Wolfe: Plutography is the graphic description of the act of being rich and the process of being stimulated by ostentation. Plutography is like pornography in that no one likes to admit to being stimulated but, in fact, most people are. Hence the success of magazines like House & Garden,

Architectural Digest,

Connoisseur and now a new one called Millionaire.

Maclean’s: Did you see much evidence of plutography in Canada while you were working on your television documentary?

Wolfe: No. While there is great wealth,

I detect quite a bit of the “Boston Cracked Shoe” approach to wealth in the upper reaches of Canadian society. There used to be in Boston a great virtue in wearing shoes that, although they were highly polished and well cared-for, were so old that they were beginning to crack at the seams—hence, the Boston Cracked Shoe. At very posh Canadian dinner parties, you will see people arriving not in limousines—they seem to want to make a point of arriving in a Subaru hatchback or a Volkswagen. To this day, among people who consider themselves to be superior folk in Toronto, it is not really considered good form

to show off your wealth. It is that Scottish modesty.

Maclean’s: What makes Canadians distinct from Americans?

Wolfe: Canadians and Americans want a lot of the same things, but the basic difference is that the United States was born of revolution and Canada was not. In Canada there is not this emphasis on re-inventing yourself; in the United States we are told that everybody can re-invent himself. You also do not have this impulse to soar higher in terms of prosperity and power. Canada is one of * the few countries that does not have some rapacious animal as its national animal. It has a constructive animal, the beaver, which will not even bite your finger unless it is backed into a corner. And practically every other national flag has its origins in battle, while the Canadian flag is the maple leaf. It almost symbolizes a pastoral idyll.

Maclean’s: Is there any difference between the way Canadians view themselves and the way Americans see us?

Wolfe: Most Americans would be surprised to hear Canadians talk about an inferiority complexas several do in the documentary. We are also unable to under^ stand how Canadians 2 could find any fault J with our foreign poliI cy. I think our reacï tion always is: “Look what we have done for you. How can you be so petty as to object to our policy toward Cuba or Central America, you ingrates?” Before doing the documentary,

I never really focused on the fact that Canada was born in a spirit of antiAmericanism. But the vast majority of English-speaking Canadians in the late 18th century and the early 19th century were actually Americans who were not in favor of the American Revolution. And after the Civil War there was a decision by our administration—“Well, why not annex Canada?” We settled for Alaska. But that does not create a long tradition of peace and harmony between nations. □