Star-Crossed: Tom Wolfe vs. Updike & Irving
Each issue the Star-Crossed column chooses two or more writers who were born during a particular month and talks about their work.
Tom Wolfe -- born March 2, 1931, Richmond, Virginia
John Updike -- born March 18, 1932, Reading, Pennsylvania
John Irving -- born March 2, 1942, Exeter, New Hampshire
Wolfe! Yes, the kind that howls when bit, and the howling here is loud, is long, is hooowwwled out... yes, howled OUT!... a cry in the pedal-to-the-metal italicized ellipsized supersized stretch-limo language of the lupine Tom, wounded at the wheel, a streak of blood on his clean white suit! And still he drives! Eight decades in the race, Senior Johnson, and still he drives!
Attacked, ambushed in the tame backlash against the wild success of A Man in Full, he parks and smiles. Yes, skinny, elegant, elfin-eared, he smiles and winks and tucks the triangle-pointed waterfall fold of a blue silk handkerchief into the vest pocket of his suit and steps out of that limo and... lands an uppercut to the Adam's apple of John Irving's muscular neck... swings a kick to Norman Mailer's ass... plants a heel in John Updike's crotch. "My Three Stooges," he calls them -- Updike, Mailer, Irving -- Larry, Curly, Moe -- yes, he imagines them fuming, flattened, furious at his mockery, their egos lit up, burning, jack-o'-lanterns turning brown from within... rotting as they roast...
What could go wrong? What could is what did: the next novel, his best, misread, abused, molested by the critics. They got to him, Irving and Updike and Mailer, he heard them, everyone heard them, and if The Three Stooges essay in Hooking Up was his way of pretending he didn't agree and didn't care, I Am Charlotte Simmons was his way of saying he knew they were at least partly right.
But it was more: much more. No retreat in listening to his critics! No: very much in his own way, like those small-town innovators and adventurers he always admires, he changed, strengthened, pushed his writing harder, higher. Wolfe has done this all along... has tinkered with the configuration of his axle while customizing his tires... and then rigged up an improvised pair of jet-propelled wings... and then settled down to the big-time, the inspired construction of massive booster-rockets... wheeling and flying and finally bursting into the sky, Gordo Cooper in his Mercury spacecraft! It's there, it streaks behind him, the view is incredible, it's the blur of the racetrack as he sweeps around the curve, it's the white line of the contrail above the clouds, it's the arc of the exhausted Saturn V third-stage propulsion tank, with the flaring metal skirt of its aft interstage, dropping back toward the Earth! Yes, it's his ascent from the slick but thin surfaces of his early magazine pieces to his orbital escape in The Right Stuff... and then his second career, starting over, his novelist's climb from the easy target (big fish! tiny barrel!) of the Master of the Universe in The Bonfire of the Vanities to the less easy target (bigger fish! giant pond!) of A Man in Full.
And then I Am Charlotte Simmons, and what the hell is going on here? As far as many reviewers are concerned, it's the Challenger, the Columbia, one of our shuttles blowing up in liftoff or disintegrating in reentry, it's the Big Crash of Wolfe's career. He's the Fourth Stooge, at least for a few publishing seasons... and maybe (for this god of publicity! this guru of media management!) he should've known better than to take on three writers who are at least his equals and declare them irrelevant, with himself as the only possible center of serious attention. Popularity giveth, and popularity taketh away.
But still! I Am Charlotte Simmons is so much better than his other two novels! Are we really just going to dismiss it? Are terrific American novels so common we can afford to throw one of them out this way, with a snide little snort, a snort most of Wolfe's critics had prepared before the novel was even published? After I finally got around to the Three Stooges piece in Hooking Up, a book that proclaims its conservative political stance with a triumphalism that looks more obtuse every year, I was just as primed as everyone was to call I Am Charlotte Simmons a failure. But then I read it and realized it's not. And saying it is doesn't make it true, any more than Wolfe made his own accusations true through his claims that Updike and Mailer and Irving had "wasted their careers by not engaging the life around them."
1 -- Wolfe Cub: I Am Charlotte Simmons
Before getting down to the more important qualities of I Am Charlotte Simmons, we shouldn't forget just how talented a reporter Wolfe is. I went to school with a woman who served as one of the many sources of background information for Wolfe's writing. She confirms how thorough and inspired his research is. It's not always so terribly important for novelists to get all their facts straight. Even the best ones seldom do. Nabokov, no slouch in researching his own novels, once noted that Tolstoy makes constant mistakes in describing plants and birds and trees, and suggested this sort of complaint is finally a dead-end for literary criticism. But let's pay tribute to Wolfe for his wizardry at carrying out a mission many fiction writers discharge poorly when they try to discharge it at all. He goes forth to meet and understand people outside his own immediate social loop. He learns things about places in America we don't know, or places we think we know but don't really, and brings back some of the more succulent facts.
I Am Charlotte Simmons is set in a university that blends Duke with a dash of Penn and Stanford and several other schools. Despite the ubiquity of the campus novel in modern American literature, Wolfe's Dupont University feels freshly observed. It's built up piece by piece, from detailed information on frat boys and athletes, dorm life and tutor programs. Independent from the university system, neither a recent student nor a current professor, Wolfe subjects Dupont to the same many-sided, Big Institution treatment to which he subjected Wall Street in The Bonfire of the Vanities and Atlanta in A Man in Full. His Dupont is inseparable from the social and political life around it. The novel turns largely on a blowjob one of the students gives to a Republican governor. The repercussions play out among the characters' relationships not only with each other but with financial and cultural forces they barely recognize. Just as importantly, those larger forces encounter the smaller but equally potent forces of individual desires and private eccentricities. The personal twists the social, the social twists the personal, and the strain produces contortions and mutations at both the public and the private level.
So what's the difference between I Am Charlotte Simmons and the earlier Wolfe novels? Isn't this the same strain that Wolfe gave us with the dilemmas of Sherman McCoy and Charlie Croker? Yes and no. Yes: the comic mechanism here is the one that powers all of Wolfe's writing, the sight of human beings either lifted up or ripped apart by the social gears and political conveyor belts and cultural flywheels in which they're caught. But no: Wolfe has silently identified some of the most damaging flaws from his earlier novels and has made a more than credible effort to escape his own limitations.
In The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, the contest between the personal and the social is no contest at all. Wolfe is great at imagining the public situations but much less deft at imagining the private ones. Sherman McCoy has no life, no humanity, apart from his social identity. Neither, for the most part, does Charlie Croker. They're finger-puppets of their environment. The puppetry is entertaining but too repetitive to support novels as long as these. You start out reading both books with great excitement and end by feeling exhausted. They've outstayed their welcome by hundreds of pages, dozens of plot twists. Wolfe's characters, for all the surface detail he brings to them, are too abstract. Whatever his general views of McCoy and Croker, he fails to enter their minds and emotions with enough suppleness to hold our strongest interest. They're shallow men who misconstrue their shallow successes as great achievements and their shallow failures as great tragedies. They think they're distinguished individuals, monuments to personal willpower, and they can't see how much their individuality is a sham, how entirely they're created by their settings. The man in full isn't even a man in part.
That's some of Wolfe's point, of course. But it's very much not his entire point, as the less successful elements of A Man in Full demonstrate. Wolfe isn't an absolute determinist, though he's often mistaken for one. If he were, he probably wouldn't bother to write novels, and wouldn't devote so much of his fiction to the private perceptions of his characters. With his massive talent for the invocation of stomping, roiling, shouting, rocking, circus-like public settings, Wolfe initially posed a giant problem for himself as a novelist. The sheer curb flash of his skill as a social observer was so burnished and chrome-rimmed and bright that it out-gleamed everything else he tried to bring his fiction to accomplish.
The Charlie Croker story from A Man in Full, for instance, is supposed to be offset by the story of Conrad Hensley. Conrad is a modern Job, a contemporary Jean Valjean. He's lashed forward, sent staggering up a ziggurat of injustices. Young and poor, Conrad is the son of drug-addled hippie parents. (The most fatuous side of Wolfe's conservatism emerges in the novel's impatient hippie-skewering.) After losing his job, Conrad ends up in prison and struggles to keep from being raped. Throughout his trials he maintains and solidifies his personal integrity. Eventually he finds philosophical sustenance in Epictetus and Stoicism. Ultimately we see that Conrad, not Croker, is the man in full. Conrad represents the private values of the individual in spite of the pressures and enticements of society. He is Wolfe's proof that we aren't, after all, mere minions of our circumstances, stooges of our surroundings. Unfortunately, the point is demolished by Wolfe's failure to make Conrad believable. If you want to set up a character as an incarnation of individuality, that character should be, well, pretty individual, pretty distinctive. I don't remember a single thing about Conrad as a person. I can't recall how he looks, how he speaks, anything that might make him more than a whiteboard-scribbled outline for Wolfe's talking points on Epictetus.
But Wolfe is a determined writer, and in I Am Charlotte Simmons he finds the substance that eluded him with Conrad. Wolfe didn't publish Bonfire, his first novel, until 1987, when he was already fifty-six years old. I Am Charlotte Simmons, from 2004, came out when he was seventy-three, and it's a much more sophisticated novel than Bonfire, a leap out of the shallows and into the deep.
Charlotte Simmons is the first character in Wolfe's novels to have a personality strong enough for us to feel the significance of her struggle to hold on to herself, to brace herself against society's efforts to rebrand her. There's an inherent awkwardness in a septuagenarian man writing about a young college woman, of course, and critics were quick to spotlight the problem without noticing how much Wolfe gained in return for the sacrifice. (Something similar happened with the grumpy critical response to the high-school-aged protagonist of Updike's final novel, Terrorist. You have to feel sorry for American novelists who live too long: we inflict on them the same contempt for their maturity and experience we tend to inflict on older people in general. Shouldn't we be a little ashamed of ourselves for this? Are we really so confident that the old are merely fading echoes of their younger selves, with nothing valuable to tell us?)
Charlotte is very specific. She's not a typical college student and she isn't meant to be. This in itself makes her stand out from most of the people in Wolfe's fiction. Usually his characters represent whatever trends he wants to satirize. Charlotte, a teen from the Blue Ridge Mountains, is different. Wolfe does a great job of recreating her family and her life in Appalachia. As he showed in The Right Stuff and "The Last American Hero," Wolfe has a gift for finding the ornery outcroppings of independence and achievement that can emerge from the most offbeat rural and working-class niches of American culture. When she heads north for college, Charlotte either doesn't fit most of the expected categories for a Dupont student or clanks them together in clashing mash-ups.
For the first time, Wolfe gathers up some of the more demanding resources a novel allows for bringing out the many possible flavors of a character. Instead of blasting out over and over the same few stylistically heightened tics and traits, Wolfe now turns different facets of Charlotte toward us in each chapter, and sometimes within each sentence. She's a virgin, but she's not a traditional prude and her sexual attitudes are shifting and interesting, as hard for us to pin down as they are for her. (Predictably, the self-appointed scolds from the Bad Sex award missed this, and continued to make asses out of themselves with their squeamishness.) Though she holds certain constants in her mind, Charlotte is a young person who is still figuring herself out. The strongest part of her -- the solid foundation out of which the rest of her grows and changes -- is her commitment to her intelligence, her faith in the importance of learning. But this is only the baseline of her character. Everything interesting about her, everything that makes her different from most of Wolfe's inventions, plays against that baseline, often sharply, often softly, seldom exactly the way we expect.
Her variations are also unpredictable because the variations in the people she meets are unpredictable. This isn't the old Wolfe world of cast-iron social hierarchies and behavior codified so strictly that even the slightest infringement of the rules is catastrophic. This is a world where people think they might or should know the rules but can't agree on what those rules are, or how they should or shouldn't be followed. Wolfe was already trying to take us here in Bonfire and A Man in Full, but didn't quite make it, couldn't quite bring the final rounding to his work. Charlotte, unlike Sherman McCoy or Charlie Croker, repeatedly meets people who can be as mysterious or contrarian to their own minds and interests as she is to hers. JoJo, the basketball player she ends up dating, is both comfortable and uncomfortable with his social position, and makes a good foil for Charlotte's ambivalences. So does Adam Gellin, a writer for the school newspaper whose vengeful streak and self-hatred travel a crooked and interesting path.
Charlotte and JoJo are subjected to the usual Wolfe stresses: prestige, money, social and political power. Charlotte changes, loses some of her commitment to her studies and her intellectual goals. JoJo changes, becomes Charlotte's boyfriend. But with both characters the changes are intricate and worth thinking about afterward. Charlotte has different pressures working inside her, and the pressures exist in growing tension with each other. The conflict between the individual and the environment is tragic here, because Charlotte has something to lose, a full and varied and developing personality. But it's not clear -- it's not supposed to be clear -- exactly how much she gives up and how much she gains. Wolfe has moved beyond making simple pronouncements, has imagined characters and situations that continue to thrive on their own, generating more possibilities the more we consider them.
A question lingers, one that comes up all the time with novels, and that suggests why solid but mediocre fiction often receives better initial notices than more lasting and sophisticated fiction does. How did reviewers misrepresent so totally what Wolfe had done? Why were they so comfortable rushing through the novel and then revealing just how little of the writing they had bothered to absorb? Charlotte is sexually pillaged in a way that's both complex and credible, yet one reviewer paid so little attention to the storyline that he wrote: "However squalid her violation, however betrayed and depressed she feels, one's instinctive response is: get over it, Charlotte." I don't think this is insensitivity on the reviewer's part. It's something more basic. Many critics seem to have made up their minds in advance that this time they would highlight the shallowness of Wolfe's characterizations, and they weren't going to let the actual book get in the way of their conclusions.
Wolfe grasps this as well as anyone does, I imagine. Bonfire and A Man in Full were built to reap good reviews and a large audience. Their virtues are simple and impossible to miss. You can swallow both novels in big quick gulps, without worrying whether you've missed much in your impatience to devour them. A large part of what Updike and Mailer were saying in their criticism of A Man in Full was: "Yes, this is a very good novel, but only in the big strokes. You won't be rereading it ten years from now. It doesn't have enough in it to bring you back to it." And Updike and Mailer were right. Who reads A Man in Full now? Its time has passed. That doesn't make it a bad book. It deserved its success. It earned its readership. It was a novel for its moment, and it did exactly what it set out to do, just as Bonfire did. But the irony -- one Wolfe would seem well-equipped to appreciate -- is that when he wrote a novel that deserves more lasting attention, that rewards the time you might want to put into a serious work of fiction by returning to it throughout your life, nobody noticed. Worse, the flaws of his earlier novels were projected onto the only novel he'd done that transcended those flaws. I hope Wolfe can laugh at the absurdity of this, just as I hope at least a few readers will have the patience to rediscover I Am Charlotte Simmons at some more receptive time in the future.
2 -- John Irving: The Dickens Factor
Many of the novelistic strengths that Wolfe attained in I Am Charlotte Simmons have been present in John Irving's work all along. Wolfe's assault on Irving in Hooking Up is childish and inaccurate, and ignores most of what Irving has written.
Does anything good ever come out of novelists carping at each other? Hemingway is a great writer, but his reputation has been lastingly tainted, and less by the fascinating and tormented machismo of his fiction than by the wild punches he threw at his contemporaries. To hear Hemingway bellow over the supposed personal and literary inadequacies of Stein or Faulkner or Fitzgerald, to read the bullying hostility of his private letters and A Moveable Feast, is to endure all the slop and nonsense he carefully cut out of the best of his published novels and short stories. (Has any writer ever been hurt as much as Hemingway has by the posthumous stir-frying of his art with his leftovers?) Many novelists rig up some simple and crude persona to help promote their work, and part of that persona can involve the equally simple and crude process of cutting down other writers. It's always been that way, and probably always will be. One of the side jobs of criticism is to try to put the cutting-down into perspective, to remind readers just how cheap and unfair novelists can be in evaluating each other. Irving apparently made some hotheaded remarks about Wolfe's writing style on a Canadian TV program, and Wolfe responded by making some hotheaded remarks about Irving's books in Hooking Up. The result is a gossip-lover's spectacle, which is why the gossip-loving Wolfe played it all up so shamelessly. But it's also a spectacle that, for those of us who only came upon it years afterward, seems more farcical than edifying. Wolfe emerges from it all pretty badly, and nowhere worse than in his evaluation of Irving.
Wolfe goes at Irving from two directions. First, Wolfe mocks Irving for what he calls "the Dickens factor." Wolfe thinks Irving wants to be considered the modern Dickens and was jealous because A Man in Full was constantly compared to Dickens. "It must gnaw at him terribly," Wolfe says. Second, Wolfe criticizes A Son of the Circus and A Widow for One Year as part of his overall attack on Irving, Mailer, and Updike for supposedly being "insular, effete and irrelevant" in not taking Wolfe's journalistic approach to their material. (Wolfe repeats the word "effete" at least twice in his piece, with the knowledge that it's likely to be an especially infuriating term for his trio of testosterone-conscious competitors. It's the kind of touch that already makes the whole affair seem to belong to some vanished era, as far removed from us as the late Victorians must have felt to readers at the start of the Jazz Age.)
I wrote about Dickens for last month's column, and one of the things I came away thinking is that few modern serious novelists are willing to risk strong emotion the way Dickens does. Then I remembered Irving. He has taken up the most artistically challenging part of the Dickens legacy, the bold humor charged with warm feeling, the sentiment that tips into sentimentality. Like Dickens, Irving loves many of his characters, and wants us to love them. Unlike Dickens, Irving is aware that the flamboyant expression of his love would be disastrously off-putting for many of his readers. He is restrained and controlled, a New Englander who understates his feelings because they're too intense and too private for constant display. The warmth of his novels tends to rise gradually, discreetly, and yet by the end of each book the sentiment is as powerful and as explicit as the sentiment in Dickens. At the same time, Irving lets into his world many of the adult forces Dickens banishes or dilutes: convolutions of sexuality and gender, rape, sexism, adultery, incest, along with random violence, absurd and grotesque accidents, wrongs that are never righted, losses that can't be overcome with a happy ending. Dickens maintains the clarity of his feelings by leaving out much of the impurity and tawdriness of life. Irving brings that tawdriness back in, knows the tawdriness is part of us, impossible to reject without rejecting our humanity. But the tawdriness and corruption are never the final word with Irving, as they tend to be with many contemporary writers. Irving doesn't rest with the notion that we're cold and manipulative and cruel, and that these are the only truths we need to know about ourselves. He's obsessed with the way love exists alongside or intertwined with all the influences that seem to threaten or cheapen or obstruct love: the petty infidelities that lead to the unpredictable and wildly disproportionate horror of the infamous auto accident in The World According to Garp, the broken nose inflicted on Melony in The Cider House Rules, the foul ball that kills Tabitha in A Prayer for Owen Meany. Obscenity -- pornographic sex and pornographic violence -- runs loose through Irving's work, but the final effect of the novels isn't sleazy or dark. We remember the books for the generosity and compassion of the characterizations, for Jenny Fields and Ellen James in Garp, or for Franny and Egg in The Hotel New Hampshire.
To accuse Irving, as Wolfe does, of failing to engage with American society is silly. It requires Wolfe to overlook Irving's intensely American exploration of all kinds of issues involving as wide a swath of our country as Wolfe has ever cut: feminism, Vietnam, abortion, the sexual revolution and its aftermath, religion in its distinctively American forms, fanaticism, racism. Garp traces not only its main character's life but America's evolution from the forties through the late seventies. In the assassinations of Jenny Fields and Garp, for instance, the novel finds a moving equivalent to the assassinations that punctuated the sixties and heightened our ongoing sense of a nation where the threat of violence is a constant presence, following us through our lives. The Cider House Rules evokes the days of illegal abortions in order to address our still-unresolved debates on women's rights. The novel's broad and well-researched vision of an older America constantly interacts with our knowledge of how the past feeds into the controversies of the present. This isn't history as something dead and preserved but history as a live current rushing through all of us right now and carrying us forward into our future. Irving doesn't notice the same things about America that Wolfe might notice, and he doesn't present those things in the same way, but why should he?
The real disagreement between Wolfe and Irving isn't on subject matter but on writing style. Irving hates how Wolfe writes. The exhibitionistic brashness of Wolfe's writing is directly opposed to the self-effacing discipline of Irving's work.
Wolfe lets things rip. He calls attention to the rush and rawness of his tone, the virtuosity of his ear. Strunk & White are a joke to him. Why not mix your metaphors? Why not shoot off sentence after sentence flaming with parenthetical asides and bold-caps and exclamation points and repetitions? Why not do everything you're not supposed to do? The voice, the live human voice of the way Americans really talk, is all that matters. Anything you do to bring that voice to life, anything you do to make readers hear how beautiful and strong and fun that voice can be when it's allowed to speak as loud and fast and wild as it wants, is good writing. It's the credo of a showoff, Mark Twain reborn, and every sentence applauds itself, shouts at you to enjoy how flashy it is. The speed! The catchphrases! The right stuff! Master of the Universe! Saddlebags! Fuck patois! These are things we remember. We remember them because Wolfe knows how to fire them into our brains and make them stay there.
Then again, so does every copywriter at every big ad agency. It's not the catchphrases that make Wolfe's style work. It's the way he can keep the style up for hundreds of pages, varying it for all kinds of characters from all kinds of backgrounds. Considering how pumped up and hyperactive the style is, it's amazing how much Wolfe gets out of it, how long we can listen to it. I've always been worn out by Wolfe's gimmicks before the end of his novels, but never so worn out that I stopped reading. The voice is alive at a deeper level than the level of all its tricks and stunts. It's only superficial on the surface.
But it's no great shock that Irving hates it. His own style is crafted with quiet economy and grace. He doesn't ask you to appreciate his brevity and directness, doesn't ask you to think about his language at all; his lines are unobtrusively neat rather than showily austere; they have none of the bleached-bone beauty of Raymond Carver or the sleek metallic sheen of Don DeLillo. But you can see Irving's attentiveness to words, the care he puts into choosing them so he can cover as much substance as possible as swiftly as possible. The care is particularly impressive because his novels are so long. He's at his best with transition sentences, switching the story from one setting to another. Flaubert knew how hard good transition sentences are to write, and he put special effort into making them work without jarring the narrative rhythm. Irving does the same. He can swing through three separate conversations in a single page, linger for a longer sequence that covers a dozen pages or more, then sweep through a series of one- or two-page segments, all without ever losing the story's flow or creating any sense of choppiness or imbalance. It's a skill that requires exceptional control on Irving's part. He's not a lazy writer. He rarely lets a long section run on for more pages than necessary, rarely lets a short section pass without enough dialogue and observation to make it distinctive.
He's also funny. His humor isn't usually based on one-liners, though he does write funny dialogue and he knows how to set up a wisecrack. Most of his jokes work only in context; he's very much a comic novelist rather than someone who could contribute extra material for stand-up routines. In Garp, when Michael Milton tells Helen that she "means more to him than all of France," we laugh because we've learned exactly what it is that France means to him, and because it's precisely the wrong thing for him to say to hold Helen's interest.
Irving is much more aware of the world outside America than most of our writers are. All of his novels have significant sections set abroad. He does a remarkable factual job conjuring up Vienna in Garp and in The Hotel New Hampshire, and conjuring up Toronto and the Nordic countries in his 2005 novel Until I Find You. An unnerving book, Until I Find You is the story of a reverse Humbert, sexually initiated as a boy and then attracted to older women throughout his life. For years, Irving said he planned to write a contemporary version of First Love, the Turgenev novella in which a young man discovers that his older lover is his father's mistress. I never understood why Irving would want to construct one of his big, expansive works around the tight kernel of Turgenev's story, but Until I Find You seems to be the remarkable outcome of that desire. It's not like anything else Irving has done, and its detailed knowledge of cities like Copenhagen and Stockholm puts the American chapters, and the American protagonist, in a greatly enlarged context; you would think Wolfe, with his idea of literature as an exploration of individuals in their broader environments, would appreciate this. Among young European novelists, at any rate, Irving is influential in a way that hasn't always been noticed in his home country. Joe Speedboat, for instance, the first novel by the terrific new Dutch writer Tommy Wieringa, is shaped as much by Wieringa's admiration for Irving as A Prayer for Owen Meany was shaped by Irving's admiration for Günther Grass and The Tin Drum.
3 -- John Updike: American Epic
Wolfe's blasts at Updike are harmless, because Updike has already prevailed against much harsher and more legitimate dismissals. There's never been a time when Updike's work wasn't being loudly condemned, and there's never been a time when his critics didn't have at least the shadow of a point. Like Zadie Smith or Joyce Carol Oates, Updike is a writer you probably shouldn't try to press on people who are determined to dislike him. Something about him -- everything about him -- is indigestible for certain readers. It was surprising to see the widespread sense of loss his death released back in 2009. Where were all those voices when he was alive? Why did it take his death for us to appreciate him at something close to his worth?
The answer isn't hard to find. If The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full are designed for instant gratification, most of Updike's novels have been designed for more gradual appreciation. Ideally, of course, a work of art should do both, should give us great pleasure at first glance and even greater pleasure on longer acquaintance. That's what Little Dorrit does, and The Age of Innocence, and Romeo and Juliet. But for every Little Dorrit, there's a Ulysses or a Moby-Dick; for every Wharton, there's a Woolf or a Djuna Barnes; for every Romeo and Juliet, there's an Antony and Cleopatra or a Troilus and Cressida. Updike wrote one proper bestseller, Couples, but most of his novels sold more modestly, and struggled to reach a shrinking audience. In Hooking Up, Wolfe implies that the great serious writers are also the great popular writers. But it's never been that simple. Popular and unpopular works of good writing have always existed side by side, and the relationship between them is too unpredictable to reduce to any formula. Wolfe is right to say that popularity can be one sign of a novelist's vitality and worth, but he's wrong to say that Updike, of all people, is unpopular because he's out of touch with the realities of American culture. The Rabbit novels are the most fully sustained and completely realized epic take on American life any of our writers has produced. Their author doesn't need to be taught lessons by Wolfe on how to investigate and present the spectacle of our society in all its unwieldy, bewildering specificity. Updike's writing not only fulfills but overflows the qualifications that Wolfe takes from Alfred Kazin as the mark of our greatest novelists: "our writers' absorption in every last detail of their American world together with their deep and subtle alienation from it." There's much more to Updike than the Rabbit novels, but Updike is a bigger subject for another time. He deserves to be discussed separately, and on his own terms rather than on Wolfe's.
4 -- Astronauts on Earth: The Right Stuff
Nearly everyone in my family loves flying. We love aircraft and spacecraft, anything to do with Kitty Hawk and the Spirit of St. Louis, the French reconnaissance balloons of the eighteenth century and the floating Kongming lanterns of ancient China, jumbo jets and lunar modules and the projected missions to climb Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain on Mars. Both my father and my grandfather worked for Boeing at certain points in their lives. My younger brother is in the Air Force. My cousin runs a private helicopter company with her husband. When I was a boy, I wanted to be an astronaut. (Now I just hope to go up as a passenger on SpaceShipOne.) My uncle also wanted to be an astronaut, and he came much closer to it than most people ever do. He was a fighter-jock jet pilot, part of the select fraternity of pilots who, in their earlier incarnation, form the chorus for Tom Wolfe's 1979 book The Right Stuff.
The Right Stuff is Wolfe's masterpiece. It's one of the great works of creative nonfiction, one of the indispensable books in a literary movement that's been as energetic as anything most of our novelists have been doing for the last fifty years. Creative nonfiction still doesn't get as much literary attention as fiction does, but that's possibly a blind spot later generations will find puzzling about us. From In Cold Blood in 1966 to Kate Clanchy's smart and searching 2008 book about a Kosovan refugee, What Is She Doing Here?, nonfiction has become increasingly artful and rewarding.
The Right Stuff is the only Wolfe book devoted mainly to people he respects, doing work he appreciates. I wish he would give over more of his writing to describing unusual individuals in unusual subcultures that he can, to some degree, admire. Much of what limits Bonfire and A Man in Full is his simple distaste for his characters. He doesn't like them, he doesn't sympathize with their problems, and he's out to expose their fraudulence, just as his early journalism exposed the pretensions of radical chic. (One difference between Wolfe and Edith Wharton is that Wolfe doesn't convey a dense enough mass of mixed feelings to give his impaling of the rich and the privileged much in the way of interesting warps and contortions.) Satire of cultural or financial or political elites is always popular: it flatters the resentment of those who dislike the elite and also flatters the narcissism of those who identify with the elite. But it's partly a waste of Wolfe's talents, a reduction of his occasional genius to the jeweled birdcage of an issue of Vanity Fair. I enjoy Vanity Fair, but I get enough of it in the magazine. I expect more from a book, and Wolfe has delivered so much to us at his best that it's frustrating to see him settle for less.
After all, how many of our writers can bring into deep-focus lucidity the workers and specialists and pioneers we tend to overlook, and accomplish it without condescending to them and without sentimentalizing them? Wolfe does this in his chronicle of the Midwestern origins of Silicon Valley, "Two Young Men Who West," which is stylistically as reserved as most of his work is effusive. He also does it, very differently, in the novella that Hooking Up features, "Ambush at Fort Bragg." The novella empathizes with but doesn't justify or excuse a group of soldiers who have killed one of their comrades. The soldiers are homophobic creeps who are, at the same time, earnest young men and competent professionals responsible for doing difficult and dangerous military work. Wolfe sees them in three dimensions, with an artist's conviction that evil can only be understood through grasping how it intertwines itself with our better impulses and actions. (As a bonus, the story provides a surprisingly shaded and sympathetic portrait of a TV news reporter, a woman who seems narcissistic and silly at first but who then functions, with intriguing ethical ambiguity, as a cool-headed, capable investigative journalist.)
Most famously, in "The Last American Hero," Wolfe immerses us in the technical and practical problems Junior Johnson overcame to beat his corporate-sponsored competitors in the field of stock car racing. Included in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, "The Last American Hero" popularized the term "good old boy" outside the South, and the article is a clear-eyed, exhilarating dissection of Johnson's good old boy ingenuity and determination. I never would've guessed that a great nonfiction piece could come out of a stock car racer "drafting" better-financed racers by riding right up on the bumper of their vehicles and driving so close to them that it "created a vacuum behind the lead car," making both cars "go faster than they normally would." Satire and skepticism come easily to Wolfe, and his appreciation of Johnson is tempered by the humor surging through the piece. Wolfe is amused and impressed by Johnson's buccaneering but not taken in by it: the admiration for Johnson's good points never spills over into adulation. The title of the article is as much a goad as a statement. Implicitly, Wolfe asks us what we mean by heroism, whether hero is the right word for Johnson's reputation as "the Lion Killer, the Little David" of stock car racing.
It's a question that moves through all of Wolfe's work: what's the relationship between genuine achievement and the illusion of achievement, between personal honor and public reputation? Sometimes Wolfe's answers have been glib and conceptual, as in the contrast between Croker's hollow public success and Conrad's private integrity. But in his nonfiction, where he can't so easily fit the characters and events to his beliefs, Wolfe has often had the talent and the honesty to let the facts complicate the question and open up its possibilities.
Why is the question so urgent for Wolfe? Partly, I would speculate, because he's a Virginian, and in particular a Virginian from Richmond. Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy in the Civil War, has maintained its own vision of American history and values. That vision emphasizes the importance of Virginia's aristocratic rules of honor in the establishment and building of our nation. The romanticized but not completely inaccurate version of the story would run something like this. Four of our first five presidents came from Virginia, and to this day Virginia's total of eight presidents is the largest contribution of any state. But especially those first four Virginians -- Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe -- were critical to setting the U.S. in motion and giving the nation its distinctive character. Their values were largely the values of the slave-owning Virginia gentry, and the values of the Virginia gentry were constructed around a (racist, sexist, hypocritical) code of honor. It's a code that, in its ideal and never-realized form, recognizes little distinction between public honor and private honor, personal integrity and social integrity. Washington took the concept of honor seriously, and is set in Virginia history as the leader who placed the code at the heart of our government and our culture. For some of the Richmond natives I've known, America's tragic flaw has been our drift away from that code, our replacement of honor with publicity, integrity with fame, conscience and duty with the display of wealth and power. Wolfe is too knowledgeable to accept this self-serving and usually rightwing storyline at face value: I'm sure he recognizes how much of the worst southern traditions the code has been used to rationalize. Still, his awareness of the code must be one source of his fixation on honor as a living thing, in constant struggle with itself whenever a gap exists between public and private ideas of conduct.
The code in The Right Stuff is the concealed and mostly unspoken code of the American military pilots in the early years of jet aircraft. The code is less about physical courage than about a partly practical and partly mystical individual attribute, the right stuff, which condemns each pilot to the endless demonstration of a Sisyphean yet distinctly fast-paced and wide-grinned American style of testing and tasking. To show the right stuff, a pilot must prove that he has "the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment." Moreover, the pilot must "then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite -- and ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God."
The punishment for losing the right stuff at any point is horrible death: you crash and are "burned beyond recognition." The procession of deaths and funerals that begins the book is an astonishing stretch of writing. An eerie incantation of details -- the bodies burned beyond recognition, the bridge coats the pilots wear to the funerals -- haunts one of the pilots' wives as she discovers that her husband's work involves the routine violent deaths of his colleagues. "Three months later," Wolfe writes at one point, "another member of the squadron crashed and was burned beyond recognition and Pete hauled out the bridge coat again and Jane saw eighteen little Indians bravely going through the motions at the funeral." The incantation then carries on, bridge coat after bridge coat, funeral after funeral.
The right stuff sets the standards for the Edwards Air Force Base test pilots who occupy the highest level any American flyer can reach. Edwards is where the most talented pilots do the most dangerous flights. The standards are clear because being a test pilot is technical, measurable work, and because the difference between success and failure is the difference between living and dying. Outside Edwards, almost nobody knows these standards, or would care much if they did. But within Edwards, the cult of the right stuff is all consuming and absolute.
Then things change. The Space Race starts. America reacts to the Soviet challenge, an extraordinary string of historical firsts: Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova. The Mercury program, designed to fling Americans into space as quickly as possible, takes its astronauts from the pool of existing military pilots. It doesn't, however, necessarily choose the candidates who are the best pilots under the code of the right stuff. The initial astronauts, after all, aren't expected to do much in the way of flying. They're "spam in a can," as the right stuff followers dub them, helpless bodies trapped in a capsule they can't control on top of rockets they can do nothing to guide. The pilots are finally chosen less for their flying skills than for the extent to which they fit technical and medical qualifications no true believer in the right stuff could ever take seriously. (My uncle, a great pilot, was denied entry into a later version of the space program simply because he had endured polio as a boy, an affliction that from any sensible viewpoint strengthened his character and abilities and had no impact on his competence to perform an astronaut's duties.)
Wolfe's interest, naturally, is in the contrast between the old secret standards of the right stuff and the new media-manufactured image of the Mercury astronauts as the bravest and most accomplished pilots in the world. The contrast isn't so fascinating in itself: journalistic distortion is an important subject but one the media already covers pretty obsessively. Wolfe, though, uses the contrast simply as his starting point, the angle from which he approaches the astronauts and their families. He excavates the individuals from their generic media constructions, and the process of the excavation energizes him, jolts him to page after page of inspired observations.
The conflict between Alan Shepard, who best fits the traditions of the right stuff, and John Glenn, who best fits the interests of the media, becomes more enlightening and byzantine as the Mercury program continues. Faced with the challenge of differentiating among the pilots (similar to a war novelist's challenge of differentiating among soldiers), Wolfe tackles the problem the hard and honorable way. Each of the main pilots is meticulously and abundantly created, without settling for the mere backstop of caricature. Yeager, the established Edwards champion, is such a strong figure that he has stepped out of the book and become a byword for the right stuff in our national culture. Shepard wins the first Mercury space-shot, and his sly, matter-of-fact sense of humor irradiates his mission, from his pissing-in-my-spacesuit misadventure on the launching pad to his prayer of "don't let me fuck up!" to the letdown of the gray-filtered view from the porthole of his capsule. Glenn, the earnest goody-goody, alienates the other pilots with his refusal to play by some of the right stuff's rules. He then astonishes his rivals with his press-conference showmanship and with the success and professionalism of his performance in space. (People who defy their peers' assumptions and expectations seem to give Wolfe's writing an extra snap of inspiration.) Gus Grissom, progressively grim and uncommunicative, makes a mess of his own mission: he's caught between the media efforts to uphold his reputation and his knowledge of his failure within the right stuff fraternity. Even a secondary character, the lighthearted Gordo Cooper, begins to jump off the page once he's forced to take control of his spacecraft and pilot it manually for an eyesight-lined reentry. The reentry brings the story to an exuberant climax. It's a triumph for the old code, the first time anyone has a chance to exercise the essence of the right stuff as an astronaut.
The astronaut's marriages are, for Wolfe, even more prominent than the missions. Glenn's wife, Annie, has a stutter that makes it hard for her to speak in public. The stutter, Wolfe notes, can cause people to underestimate her. On the day of her husband's mission, however, she rebels against her handlers and reveals her strength, her identity as "a Presbyterian pioneer wife living in full vitality in the twentieth century." This is the surefire showpiece section of the book, as satisfying as the saddlebags showpiece of A Man in Full. Annie firmly refuses to talk to Lyndon Johnson on television, and her husband, pressured by NASA to call and persuade her to change her mind, unexpectedly gives her his total support.
More somberly, the Grissom marriage slams headfirst into disaster when Gus "screws the pooch." On splashdown, Gus apparently opens the hatch of his capsule too early, causing the capsule to sink into the ocean. Betty, his wife, has "the sneaking suspicion that everyone was saying, just out of earshot: 'Gus blew it.'" Betty has put up with a lot from Gus over the years. She rarely sees him, seldom depends on him to be with her for a crisis, even when she's in the hospital. She suspects that he is "occasionally the Complete Fighter Jock Away from Home," cheating on her with the women readily available to all the pilots. Yet she has endured his absence and infidelities because she has believed in the Military Wife's Compact. The compact says she's entitled to honor and respect for her loyalty. It's her right to share the glory with Gus during the parades in his name and during the private meeting at the White House with President Kennedy and, more excitingly, with Jackie. But because Gus has screwed the pooch on his mission, Betty receives no parade, no White House, no JFK, no Jackie. At the shabby little presentation ceremony arranged in place of the White House visit, Betty and Gus are stripped down, demoted to a husband and wife squirming in humiliated misery. It's a devastating depiction of a marriage gutted by ruined hopes. All the elements involved in the ceremony, Betty, Gus, the space program, the government, the astronaut frenzy of the entire nation, come together for a moment that combines some of the most disturbing aspects of the personal with some of the most disturbing aspects of the political and the cultural. This is, for at least one of its days, what the Space Race amounts to, this reduction of a suffering and infuriated woman to "merely the Solid Backing on the Home Front trundled forward on the concrete slab." The pilots aren't the only ones who can end up, in one way or another, burned beyond recognition.