The last American literary hero (yes?) varoooms into town

On the publication of I Am Charlotte Simmons, his 14th book, Tom Wolfe seems like one of his own characters: the Brightly Kolored Exclamation-Point-Flaked (VAROOOM) Overdrive Writer. Right?

I mean when Tom Wolfe looks at himself in the mirror with “a second set of eyes,” as one of the characters in his new novel does, and sees himself as others do, he sees a man who has changed the way journalism is practised all over the world, a man who wrote definitive accounts of three different decades of American civilization, a man who has coined or popularized dozens of now commonplace expressions (good old boy, the Me decade, radical chic, flak-catcher), a man so iconic that Harper’s Magazine selected him to appear alongside Mark Twain on the cover of its 150th anniversary issue, a man who can inspire a first run of 1.5 million copies of a novel everyone fully expects to be terrible because he sold 1.2 million hardcover copies of the last novel, the one the giants of American letters ran into the ground. Here’s a man who can look into the mirror and say, “I Am Tom Wolfe, an American Icon, a Master of the Universe, A Man in Full, the very definition of The Write Stuff” — right Tom?… Tom?

There’s a long pause over the phone from New York, where Wolfe is on a break from a publicity tour that brings him to Toronto on Dec. 14.

“You know, I wish that every morning I looked in the mirror and felt like an icon — I’ve, I’m really — I love the question because it raises the possibility that it might be true — I just cannot possibly think that way,” Wolfe says. “I mean, bless you for even toting it out as a question to which the answer might be ‘yes’… but you know, I grew up in the South, and we’re always raised to be essentially modest, and I… well, to answer the question, I’ve never really entertained the thought. It might be dangerous to entertain the thought — ‘Hey, I’m an icon! Hey, listen to me!'”

Aw c’mon, Tom. If there’s one thing you’ve taught us, it’s that status is all that counts (you’re either on the bus or off the bus, you have the right stuff or you don’t), am I wrong? So now — of course no one ever says this kind of thing out loud — but that’s what all the sniping’s about, isn’t it? That atavistic thunder of ballistic invective roiling out of the critical community is just them firing wildly at the largest target they can find. According to Stephen Metcalf at Slate, Charlotte is “An eminently foolish book — overdrawn, overlong, underconsidered, and filled with at least one forehead-slapping ay caramba per page.” Closer to home, Lynn Crosbie in the Globe wrote, “Wolfe… comes off instead like one of those horrible professors who tried to make you listen to “Imagine” while simultaneously getting off on his status as a pedagogical errant.” But this trashing is just a straightforward reinforcement of Tom Wolfe’s status as the biggest dog in the alley, right?

Now he’s laughing. “I don’t know whether that’s the case or not. I always assume that if somebody gives the book a bad review — after all, I can’t confront them and say, ‘You did too like it — you thought that book was great.’ So I don’t know…” Really? “George Orwell once said that it was impossible to enjoy a book written by someone whose political views differ from yours. And now, I’m not very political, I have no agenda, but I can’t stand going along with all these sheep that live in New York in the writing and literary and journalistic community.”

Now we’re talking. He’s a Wolfe and the rest of them are sheep. So that’s it? “I don’t know. If somebody says they didn’t like the book, I guess they didn’t like it.”

Well, quite a lot of them didn’t like it. So before moving on, let’s have a look at I Am Charlotte Simmons. Is it as bad as the critics say? Yes. And no. It does have head-slapping anachronisms, though not as many as you’d expect from a man more than 50 years removed in age from his primary characters. It does employ the pyrotechnic verbal effects (“rutrutrut,” or, in one for the books, “::::STATIC::::”) and the ubiquitous exclamation points and liberal application of italics that make Wolfe’s prose verge on self-parody. It does seem to stand laughably in awe of the very existence of teenage sexuality and ignore the possibility of young women having sex because they enjoy it. (Wolfe acknowledges as much on the phone: “This atmosphere, I found extremely hard on women. Women used to have natural outs if they didn’t want to engage in sexual activity … there was always something that they could point to, something that seemed external to their own decision-making, something that kept them from granting the boys’ wishes. But now there’s really nothing other than a desire not to have sex,” he says.) Its characters do often seem to be archetypical caricatures and one is left with an air of weightlessness upon completing it.

And yet what no one mentions is that the book is fun, it’s exhilarating to read, it nails the frustrating details of college experience more often than it misses them. Many of the “man from Mars” observations (about the now ever-present “fuck patois,” for example) are perfect little essays on contemporary culture. You’ll have a hard time finding a big book this season that’s as entertaining to read as I Am Charlotte Simmons.

But the book at hand seems beside the point. Because no one going to see him read at Convocation Hall is going to see the author of I Am Charlotte Simmons. They’re going to see the icon, who’s spent 40 years frustrating the elite and pointing out status struggles and glorifying the subcultures that have shaped America while the establishment was making other plans.

Look at the introduction to his very first book, The Kandy-Kolored, Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, in which he explains, in 1965, how he discovered the Great Big Story that only he had seen, that car racing and Las Vegas and teenage dance crazes were bona fide art forms, except that, because they were products of proletarian culture, they were invisible to the elite. “Yet all these rancid people are creating new styles all the time and changing the life of the whole country in ways that nobody seems to bother to record, much less analyze,” he wrote then.

Does he feel vindicated now that his version of the 1960s is the one we remember? “I wasn’t really writing them in terms of predictions, but the subsequent history has played out pretty much according to the — “youth revolution” seems like such a trite term — the changes that the youth living together created.”

Flash forward eight years and he’s at it again in the introduction to an anthology he edited called The New Journalism, declaring war on the novel, saying that in the hands of skilled practitioners, journalism had supplanted fiction as the great literary art form in American society.

Then, having stormed the gates of fiction as the leader of the new journalists, Wolfe in the ’80s decided to also become the champion for the defence. After writing The Bonfire of the Vanities, a lively and thrilling novel of New York, Wolfe laid out his novelistic manifesto in a 1989 Harper’s essay entitled “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” The only way to save fiction from its case of acute introspective irrelevance, he wrote, was for novelists to go out and be reporters as Dickens and Zola and Balzac had done. As he did in Bonfire.

“I really only meant to write one, just to prove that I could do it. And that seemed to go over pretty well, a lot better than I thought it would. So I thought, weeellll, I’ll do another one [1998’s A Man in Full]. And that’s the one that stretched on forever … I know you’re not supposed to mention sales, but god, that book sold a lot of copies. So I thought, ‘Ahhh, I’ll do one more.'”

After a few choice words for his old sparring partner Norman Mailer (“Mailer has never been able to write dialogue. To write dialogue, you really have to be interested in somebody besides yourself”), he offers one more piece of advice for the “charming aristocracy of taste.” If they don’t like the way he captures America in his fiction, they should capture it themselves rather than writing small psychological studies.

“[Such books have] just killed the novel. In recent weeks, both Philip Roth and V.S. Naipaul — both obviously highly regarded — say they give the novel maybe another 25 years. And they’re quite right, unless novelists go back to the spirit of the novel — or the American novel anyway — in the first half of the 20th century. The easy solution is to just go out and do it. The United States is such a bizarre, sprawling country and the terrain has hardly been touched. I mean, you can settle anywhere in the United States, and if you spent a few weeks in a place, you’d encounter more strange stories than you ever dreamed existed.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly December 9, 2004.