With the 1979 publication of The Right Stuff, a brilliant non-fiction account of the men involved in the Mercury program, Tom Wolfe completed a titanic decade and a half in which he revolutionized American journalism.
It's the story of a brilliant hillbilly virgin's first half year at Dupont U. (primarily Duke U., where Wolfe's daughter Alexandra graduated in 2002) and the three seniors she attracts—Hoyt, the George W. Bush-like alcoholic frat boy; Adam, the nice but dorky intellectual; and JoJo, the only white starter on the NCAA champion basketball team.
I like to think that, in discussing human differences frankly, Wolfe violates many of the same taboos that I do. For example, I frequently defend sensible athletes like Larry Bird, Paul Hornung, Dusty Baker or the late Reggie White from politically-correct sportswriters who want to lynch them for telling the truth about the link between racial differences in physique and sport success. And in his latest book, Wolfe parodies the tired spin on an ESPN talk show where:
"… four poorly postured middle-aged white sportswriters sat slouched in little, low-backed, smack-red fiberglass swivel chairs panel-discussing the 'sensitive' matter of the way black players dominated basketball. 'Look,' the well-known columnist Maury Feldtree was saying, his chin resting on a pasha's cushion of jowls, 'just think about it for a second. Race, ethnicity, all that—that's just a symptom of something else. There's been whole cycles of different minorities using sports as a way out of the ghetto.'"
But Wolfe makes clear the obvious reason: Even the best white players, such as the 6'-10" 250 pound JoJo, generally are inferior in musculature to the best black players—such as the freshman power forward Vernon Congers, with "his mighty pecs, delts, traps, and lats," who is threatening to take his job.
Wolfe has been noticing racial differences in muscularity at least since Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers back in 1970. There he noted that white poverty program bureaucrats feared the hard-muscled black protestors, but were less afraid of the Mexicans and not at all scared of the Chinese.
The Samoans, however, left them dumbfounded:
"Have you ever by any chance seen professional football players in person, like on the street? The thing you notice is not just that they're big but that they are so big, it's weird… From the ears down, the big yoyos are just one solid welded hulk, the size of an oil burner… Well, that will give you some idea of the Samoans, because they're bigger. The average Samoan makes Bubba Smith of the Colts look like a shrimp. They start out at about 300 pounds and from there they just get wider."
Although there were no Samoans in the National Football League when Wolfe wrote this, today there are dozens.
As in his 1998 Atlanta-based novel A Man in Full, Wolfe's new book drives the conventionally-minded crazy by ignoring his characters' facial features in favor of the visible markers of their muscle to fat ratios. He rightly sees that these indicate the hormones driving their behavior.
Indeed, Wolfe's book is so "hormono-centric" (as he puts it) that I can guesstimate the body fat percentages of all his new novel's characters.
Using PBS fitness expert Covert Bailey's table of recommendations for his clients, I'd say that lovely Charlotte is 22% body fat, while her snobbish and nearly-anorexic roommate Beverly is 16%. Exploited Adam is 21%, handsome Hoyt with his six-pack abs is 11%, jacked-up JoJo 9%, and virile Vernon 5%.
Similarly, one of Wolfe's most important but least popular themes is masculinity.
In his previous novel, Tom Wolfe describes how a high IQ corporate staffer, known as The Wiz, views his lower IQ boss, Charlie Croker, real estate developer, good old boy, and ex-football star "with a back like a Jersey Bull:"
"The Wiz looked upon [Croker] as an aging, uneducated, and out-of-date country boy who had somehow, nonetheless, managed to create a large, and, until recently, wildly successful corporation. That the country boy, with half his brainpower, should be the lord of the corporation and that [the Wiz] should be his vassal was an anomaly, a perversity of fate. . . . Or part of him felt that way. The other part of him was in awe, in unconscious awe, of something the old boy had and he didn't: namely, the power to charm men and the manic drive to bend their wills into saying yes to projects they didn't want, didn't need, and never thought about before... And that thing was manhood. It was as simple as that."
During my long corporate career, I repeatedly witnessed exactly the same phenomenon—but putting it so baldly in words leaves most people uncomfortable.
Wolfe particularly doesn't win any friends among male reviewers by pointing out that intellectuals, like Charlotte Simmons' Adam, tend to be less masculine than jocks like Jo-Jo, who, through sheer sense of alpha-male entitlement, forces his tutor (Adam) to stay up all night ghostwriting his history class reports.
Adam Kirsch in the neocon N.Y. Sun was so unhinged by this that he threatened Wolfe with the neutron bomb of accusations—anti-Semitism—although Wolfe's wife, the mother of his three children, is Jewish. (Kirsch got so many of the book's details wrong that it's hard to tell if he read it or just skimmed, looking for the naughty bits.)
(Here's another perfect example of a male reviewer—Theo Tait of the London Review of Books—criticizing Charlotte Simmons for everything that's true about it.)
Likewise, Wolfe's message to young women—including, presumably, his daughters—that the tighter rein they keep on their sexual favors, the more power they have over men—has vastly annoyed the many women who don't want to be reminded about how they've messed up their lives by ignoring such advice.
What's most striking about Wolfe's version of Duke U. is how, after 35 years of institutionalized feminism, student sexuality hasn't progressed into an egalitarian utopia. Instead, it has regressed to something that a caveman would understand—a Hobbesian sexual marketplace where muscles are the measure of the man.
This is exactly why I ended my 1997 article "Is Love Colorblind?" like this:
"When, in the names of freedom and feminism, young women listen less to the hard-earned wisdom of older women about how to pick Mr. Right, they listen even more to their hormones. This allows cruder measures of a man's worth—like the size of his muscles—to return to prominence. The result is not a feminist utopia, but a society in which genetically gifted guys can more easily get away with acting like Mr. Wrong."
Wolfe has been ahead of his time for his entire career. Indeed, the reputation of his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, has suffered because its plot is now often thought of as a pastiche of stories ripped from the headlines about Al Sharpton's Tawana Brawley hoax, the arrest of the bond king Michael Milken, the Crown Heights anti-Semitic pogrom, the Rodney King riots, and the O.J. Simpson case.
But Bonfire appeared in 1987 … before all those events it seemingly reflects.
America's most distinguished jurist-intellectual, Richard A. Posner, has admitted this in his book Overcoming Law:
"When I first read The Bonfire of the Vanities … it just didn't strike me as the sort of book that has anything interesting to say about the law or any other institution…. I now consider that estimate of the book ungenerous and unperceptive. The Bonfire of the Vanities has turned out to be a book that I think about a lot, in part because it describes with such vividness what Wolfe with prophetic insight (the sort of thing we attribute to Kafka) identified as emerging problems of the American legal system… American legal justice today seems often to be found at a bizarre intersection of race, money, and violence, an intersection nowhere better depicted than in The Bonfire of the Vanities even thought the book was written before the intersection had come into view."
Moreover, "Law & Order," perhaps the most successful franchise in television history, was clearly influenced by Bonfire. Lennie Briscoe, the late Jerry Orbach's wonderfully sardonic detective, could have come straight from its pages.
But producer Dick Wolf drained the irony from Tom Wolfe's portrayal of New York City prosecutors. Bored and depressed by an endless stream of black and brown lawbreakers, they torture the law to snag a Great White Defendant. In contrast, on "Law & Order," the abusive prosecutors who concoct patently nonsensical legal theories to justify arresting the Park Avenue rich are the heroes.
Although Wolfe resembles Waugh in his conservatism, they differ in important ways. Waugh was a jealous, cantankerous snob who said that his Roman Catholic faith was the only thing that kept his behavior even marginally tolerable. Except when at his writing desk, Wolfe is a gracious man, perhaps the last of the old-fashioned Virginia gentlemen. He doesn't seem to feel any personal need for religion, but strongly approves of it in others.
Waugh used the most elegant English prose imaginable to limn the tawdriness of modern life. In contrast, Wolfe modeled his prose style on his subject: the sloppy, vulgar, and exciting America of the booming second half of the 20th Century. His sentences tended to be flat and functional, but studded with brilliant phrases. For example, "Radical Chic," "The Me Decade," and "The Right Stuff" have all become part of the language.
Over the years, Wolfe's verbal inventiveness faded. But he improved as a copy-editor of his own prose, reaching a peak in A Man in Full, which features numerous showstopping set pieces. The chapter "In the Breeding Barn," a detailed description of the astonishing process by which thoroughbred racehorses are mated, is the most overwhelming thing he's ever written. (By nature a prim and private man, Wolfe's discomfort with writing about sex paradoxically makes his descriptions of its power so memorable.)
But the quality of Wolfe's writing collapsed over the last 100 pages of A Man in Full—perhaps due to his open-heart surgery and his subsequent clinical depression. This left me wondering whether he'd be able to recover at an age when most people are retired.
Fortunately, in Charlotte Simmons, his prose style is back to a serviceable level. And his glee over finding this great topic—student life in a modern university—that nobody important had touched in decades is palpable.
Additionally, making his main character a teenage girl solves one of Wolfe's old problems: his fascination with fashion and decorating is hugely important to his books, but in the manly men he normally writes about, it always seemed a little, ahem, gay. Like many artistic geniuses, Wolfe's personality encompasses a wider range of the masculine to feminine continuum than is common among us mortals. Back in the 1960s, Wolfe wrote some brilliant essays about fashionable young women. But then he researched his tremendous account of Navy pilots in combat over North Vietnam, "The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie," and became obsessed with male physical courage (which led to The Right Stuff and much else). He seemed to lose most of his ability to write about women—leading to the underdeveloped female characters in his first two novels.
But his Charlotte is a painfully accurate depiction of a how young woman typically feels: i.e., acutely self-conscious. Wolfe has become the Beethoven of embarrassment. He orchestrates thunderous climaxes of social mortification every few pages.
Although some have called I am Charlotte Simmons a can't-put-it-down book, personally, I had to put it down every 15 minutes or so. I felt so bad for the young characters as they heartbreakingly learn how the world works.
Wolfe has been accused of lacking sympathy for his creations. But his empathy is infinite.
As with Waugh, who was mostly dismissed as a dyspeptic middlebrow entertainer until after his death, it will likely be several decades before Wolfe's greatness as a novelist is uncontroversial.
Maybe that will be when we are also allowed to be honest about the reality of human differences.