Review of “The Purple Decades”

Paul Fussell, New York Times, October 10, 1982.

Here’s almost 20 years of Tom Wolfe’s electric prose, 20 classic pieces, including ”The Pump House Gang” (California surfers and their culture), ”The Last American Hero” (Junior Johnson, Southern moonshine delivery driver turned stock car racer), ”On the Bus” (Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ cross-country LSD bus trip), ”These Radical Chic Evenings” (Leonard Bernstein’s trendiness), ”Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers” (the fun of extorting poverty program cash from whitey in the 60’s) and memorable hunks of both ”The Right Stuff” and ”From Bauhaus to Our House.” Nothing new, but a sampling rich enough to prompt a close look at Wolfe. Who is he and what is he up to? ”Only a language experience.” That’s what Walt Whitman once called ”Leaves of Grass,” and that could also suggest Mr. Wolfe’s distinctive Americanness and hint at one valuable part of his achievement. What he conveys is excitement or shock in the face of anomaly, and he does so by deploying various devices of verbal intensity and oddness. He will repeat a tag and repeat it and finally work it to life: ”the right stuff,” ”burned beyond recognition,” ”the good old boys,” ”just like that.” He likes shock assonance, as in ”rat shacks,” ”rot bog,” ”black gas,” ”an utter shuck,” ”wavy gravy,” ”the pick of the litter” and of course ”flakcatcher.” He will weasel himself into the reader’s own intimate space with expletives and street-corner familiarities: ”Hell, yes!” ”Fat chance, sahib,” ”Is that irony or isn’t it?”…

New York Times