Frontlines

A society’s monitor

Barbara Amiel November 6 1978
Frontlines

A society’s monitor

Barbara Amiel November 6 1978

A society’s monitor

Frontlines

Beige broadloom heaven—also known as International Creative Management—is a place in New York where receptionists exude politeness just in case you’re someone important and the lobbies are filled with comfortable pseud-mod acrylic things just in case you have definite tastes. It is also the business home of a good number of America’s best writers. This month one of its staff, Lyn Nesbit, possibly New York’s Very Top literary agent, is juggling excerpt rights for a client’s new book, The Right Stuff, to be published

next April. Her client, author-journalist Tom Wolfe, (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Radical Chic, Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine) and originator of the term “The New Journalism” is hanging loose these days. So loose, in fact, that he spent one recent day loitering around the hallways of New York University trying not to get in anyone’s way after arriving early for a lecture he was giving at NYU’s Washington Square Writing Center.

The curriculum listed Wolfe as a guest speaker but none of the students

actually believed he would show. “I just didn’t take it seriously when I saw his name,” gasped one distraught female. “Do you think he’ll autograph my course catalogue?”

Wolfe is looking pleased with the turnout of 50 students. After five years of work, this week he had actually finished The Right Stuff, his first volume of a two-volume work on the American astronauts. Neither famine nor pestilence nor NYU’s nonfunctioning elevators can mar the warm glow that spreads through a writer’s lymph system in the euphoric aftermath of finishing a book. He’s pleased because this is a chance to talk, albeit in simple terms, about literature and writing and the mess that language is in. Says Wolfe: “We call this a candid age but actually it’s the Age of Euphemisms and of High-Toned Veneer.” His witty harangue will be interrupted only twice—both times by a censorious Puerto Rican janitor who will first bring a collection of folding metal bridge chairs into the classroom next to the lectern where Wolfe is speaking and then, logically, will return 10 minutes later, clang clang, to take them out again. Possibly Wolfe’s happy even about that incident because, without pausing for a moment in his lecture, he has noted the vacant look on the janitor’s face replaced by the brief moment of pleasure he evidently feels on deliberately refusing to shut the door when he leaves. The whole matter will probably appear somewhere under the Wolfe byline. And finally he’s happy because when the lecture is over he will return to his home in Manhattan’s East Sixties where his wife will be waiting for him.

“I kept waiting for them to hand out an award for long-term bachelorhood,” explains Wolfe trying (fairly) earnestly to look his age, 47, and making everyone around him in their 30s feel rather creased. “But nobody did and somehow not being married was a very tacky condition. So many scrimey people [his adjective: scruffy plus grimy] were ‘not married’ that it deflated the status.” So it was that last May 27 Wolfe resigned from the singles set and married Sheila Berger, art director of Harper's.

Since the appearance of his first article in Esquire in 1963 on California’s custom car culture, Wolfe has given the

affectations of-American society no quarter. Still, on meeting him, something seems out of kilter. This gentle New Yorker (né Virginian) with a touch

of Southern politesse and a genuine concern to avoid humiliating the student now asking him fairly mindless questions, this patient speaker with an obvious reluctance to throw a tantrum at the antics of a janitor—is this the

same man who has savaged Park Avenue socialites, armchair socialists, Mau-Mauing blacks and, in a brilliant short story called The Commercial, the patronizing racist advertising world of Madison Avenue? And the “out-of-kilter” effect is not simply due to manners, because, God knows, murderers can have sweet dispositions and Henry VIII is said to have loved music. No, it extends to Wolfe’s interpretation of his own work. Speaking of his devastating satire on the rampant selfishness in America described in his article The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening, Wolfe artlessly explains, astonishingly—“I thought I was giving a sympathetic portrayal of the self-help movements.” Discussing his analysis of the tunnel vision of some American intellectuals lurching along their fellowtravelling trips with totalitarian socialism, Wolfe remarks with genuine bewilderment: “Some critics called me Fascist for that article. I see myself as a real democrat. I mean if the people want to elect a window cleaner as U.S. president then that’s fine with me.”

Not being an ideologue himself, Wolfe seems unable to understand the reason ideologues turn on him when his uner-

ring eye pinpoints their weak spots. Wolfe is, very simply, a writer. His splashy punctuation and exuberant style seem far removed from the formalism of Emile Zola, the father of naturalism, but it is that tradition to which Wolfe hews. He reports, with that special esthetic lens the Muses give those they particularly favor, what he sees. Neither left-wing nor right-wing himself, Wolfe will continue to irritate zealous left wingers just so long as American society continues to be dominated by the left-libbers. Should their right-wing counterparts seize power and infuse American politics and culture with their own fads, Wolfe is likely to become the scourge of the conservative coven.

Meanwhile he speculates about what is the current chic in America. “Cars,” he says. “It used to be anyone could afford some sort of a car and that gave Americans freedom and privacy.” Then, with unerring instinct: “Maybe that’s why politicians love mass transit. They’re building a 63rd Street subway just four blocks away from the 59th Street one going to the same place. Politicians prefer us to be op scheduled runs.”

Barbara Amiel