Until my eye reaches the point where, chronologically, there should be The Bonfire of the Vanities, and it’s not there, and I remember that I abandoned it half-way through and loaned it to a friend and never bothered to ask for it back.
If one was reading English in the last couple of years of the ‘60s, Tom Wolfe was required reading. Not required by the syllabus you understand, but by one’s inner writer and critic. If one was also working on a student newspaper, then The New Journalism was there to be emulated, learned from, plagiarized. And if one was a young English person, listening to the Dead and regretting that there was no prospect of joining the Californian counter-culture, then The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test provided a degree of vicarious identification.
To a student of English literature, the formula was pretty obvious: third person narration, scene-by-scene narrative, dialogue (loads of it!) and references (loads of them!) to status symbols.
But what really marked out Wolfe’s prose was … well, the prose. He used devices such as bizarre punctuation and weird syntax, fancy typography and onomatopoeic neologisms.
The result was realist, writer and reader totally and equally immersed in character, narrative, life! His books – essays really – were non-fiction novels. And Wolfe was doing this knowingly, comparing the new journalism with the early realistic novel in England, and arguing that it was prompting precisely the same objections.
But there is a part of him, a part of every American writer, that knows the novel is the supreme literary achievement and that the holy grail of the Great American Novel is what he’s been put on earth to produce. (Mailer and Roth had the same aspiration and came closer.)
So in 1987 he publishes The Bonfire of the Vanities, and he loses me.
It’s full of false and fractured narratives. It’s full of brand names. It’s full of platitudes about race and capitalism. It’s focused on the media and media frenzy. It’s anti-feminist and misogynist. And he said that he wrote it with “a sense of wonder. I was saying [excitedly], 'Look at these people! Look at what they're doing! Look at that one! Look at that one!'”
That’s not novelistic. It’s not journalism. And it sure as hell ain’t literature.
But that’s ok. Not very much is. And I regret his death a great deal.
But not as much as I regret his hubris.
Today from the everysmith vaults: I’ve been listening to the Dead’s 1970 shows and, in so doing, fallen in love again with the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Currently it’s 1970-10-31 at SUNY Gym, Stony Brook, NY.