Tom Wolfe’s Greatest Hits

Review of The Purple Decades: A Reader. James Wolcott, The New York Review of Books, November 4, 1982.

Not since Garry Wills uncorked his rather fanciful notions on the origins of the cold war in the opening pages of Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time has a book been so fatefully torpedoed by its own introduction. Subtitled “A Reader,” The Purple Decadespresents an ample selection of Tom Wolfe’s writings from the Sixties and Seventies—a bewilderingly familiar selection, considering how many of Wolfe’s fugitive pieces on fashion and pop remain uncollected. Rather than spruce up the book with some of Wolfe’s lesser-known sorties (such as his tribute to the photographer Marie Cosindas, which appeared in American Photographer, or his meditation on schlock movie violence in the July 1967 Esquire, which in many ways anticipated the current rage in “splatter” films), The Purple Decades safely sticks to what one might call Tom Wolfe’s Greatest Hits: his famous profiles of Baby Jane Holzer and racecar driver Junior Johnson, his explorations of radical chic, the right stuff, and the Me Decade, and highlights from his recent sprees on the absurd excesses of art-think, The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House.

Since all of Wolfe’s books are still in print, it can hardly be argued that The Purple Decades is needed to rescue Wolfe’s work from the murks of neglect. Nor has the book been assembled merely as a sampler. No, the book’s ambitious title suggests that this collection provides an overview of a rambunctious era in the dandyish, frisking manner’ of Thomas Beer’s The Mauve Decade. Inside, the book gives off deeper rumbles of ambition: The Purple Decades is intended to be a plinth on which Tom Wolfe’s reputation will forever rest. For a suitable inscription, someone commissioned the services of Joe David Bellamy, an editor and teacher from St. Lawrence University who evidently believes that Tom Wolfe’s writing is the dishiest thing since sherbet. His enthusiasm proves to be dire…

The New York Review of Books