In Wolfe’s Clothing

Gail Caldwell, Boston Globe, October 29, 2000.


Wherever Tom Wolfe belongs in the pantheon of American letters, the man does know how to let the air out of a tire. Half vandal and half raconteur, he can deflate an entire city block of egos without getting winded — managing, in the meantime, to spin out a sparkling diatribe about NASA (Space!) or SoHo (Art!) or the birth of Silicon Valley (the Future!).

And he does it all, of course, in that inimitable Wolfean blend of hype, insight, italics, and ellipses, where the jokes are so funny . . . the intelligence so eviscerating . . . the yarns so intriguing . . . that you forget, just for a minute, that maybe you’ve heard some of this before.

“Hooking Up” is Wolfe at his cavalier best and worst, roaming between wicked brilliance and self-serving crankishness, heaping insults on vast substrata of American culture (the media, the literati, the liver-spotted Left), then quieting down to tell a great story or two. A loosely organized cluster of essays and one novella, the collection is driven by the same devilish confidence that has been Wolfe’s sine qua non for the past four decades. But one of the difficulties of being the architect of a singular style — what used to fall under the rubric of the New Journalism — is that you can wind up hostage to its reach. What Wolfe helped to do for nonfiction prose and the dissemination of ideas in modern American journalism can scarcely be overstated. Less clear is whether this particular brand of high-dollar smarts has anything new to say.

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