Most posh reviews of Tom Wolfe's books attempt to parody his style, demonstrating in the process that there is more to it than meets the eye, since they are hardly every any good. Wolfe has a lot more in the bag than conversational syntax, dots and dashes and pre-release vogue words. He has a fine sense of timing his detail and a sensitive foot on the accelerator: a steadily developing surge in the back propels you forward to the belief that the action is just over there, it's practically here, you're almost in it - it's ON!
That's the whole story of his success, though not necessarily of his literary importance: he's a colour supplement with the pix transmuted into prose, making the new scenes available to those who will live them in only a token way. Wolfe is a McLuhan Man even more than he himself realizes: not only does he condense pictures into an information beam of words which the reader's eye immediately converts back into pictures, but he embodies the point on which all McLuhan's theories about the simultaneous presence of information in the Global Village come to grief - information displaces experience, reportage obliterates reality. Wolfe writes best about people who don't need to read him. If you feel the urge to read him, you're probably plugged out. You're not getting it, you're boning up on it. Bad scene.
Without employing any (or not many - his prose has internal rhymes) of the lyric poet's techniques, Wolfe has the poet's gift of tuning in sonically to something fundamental in the brain - perhaps the alpha wave, or whatever it is that strobe lights and mainstream drumming also affect directly. In the strictest sense his wntmg makes compulsive reading. It is very difficult to stop the flow and question the attitudes that this latest and most hallucinating of the dandy monologuists undoubtedly has at some level or other.
As a cultural journalist it is difficult to type him, to find out exactly what lines he is pushing. His role is obvious enough: a kind of uttermost extension of the task which began to be performed much earlier by writers like Gilbert Seldes and Otis Ferguson, Malcolm Cowley's free-wheeling assistant on theNew Republic of the mid thirties - the locating and analysing, with sociological overtones, of the Lively Arts. All this and much more (he locates whole new life-styles, though it should be said he is not often first on the scene - merely loudest) Wolfe does well enough and sometimes brilliantly, but it isn't easy to find out where he stands in the maelstrom of what he describes and, by describing, helps towards a better-known, consequently self-conscious and arguably more vulnerable existence. He is a dandy but not totally an unashamed one. In appearance he resembles Barry Humphries taking over Alec Guinness's role in The Man in the White Suit: the drag looks like a million, but the long hair carefully hints at all the brainy little wheels spinning underneath. He earns overwhelming, valuedistorting amounts of bread even by American standards - the chapter on the automated hotel-room he took in order to finish some articles rocks you in more ways than one, since not many British journalists could earn in a whole day's writing what the room must have cost per hour.
He makes the scene, both the good scene and the bad scene: he has the precious gift of smelling out the power in a given set-up and taking it to lunch. A man with that much In has to be a smoothie - or else somebody cursed/blessed by the trick of identifying with any mood he runs into, in the way that some people can't help mimicking other people's accents. It's more than receptivity, it's a weakness: liberating in one way, but disabling in another, since only those capable of rejection can body forth a vision. But how many journalists have interviewed Hugh Hefner ('King of the Status Dropouts,' a key essay to Wolfe's strengths and weaknesses) actually in situ on his clownish revolving bed? And how many journalists have trotted along with Natalie Wood while she buys paintings? George Augustus Sala would have tipped his lid.
Yet it's exactly in these celebrity pieces that his pose of detached involvement (detached from the past, involved in the new permanent present) - his idea that these new 'statuspheres' need to be reported objectively without any prejudice deriving from the obsolescing life-style of the 'first industrial revolution - become attitudes in themselves. Regarded as an individual, Natalie Wood is not much more than a vapidly pretty face, and regarded as a representative of the overpaid film people who keep the heritage of European art out of circulation she is simply a pain in the neck. Take away the wowee prose and Wolfe's attentive regard for her reads like the ordinary highbrow slumming of those pro-popular, anti-mandarin intellectuals who spout hosannahs for Elizabeth Taylor when by some stupendous application of will-power she manages to be adequate. And surely Hefner is a joke and his magazine trash: whatever Robert Conquest says, and no matter how many millions of its readers are getting an intensity of attention paid to their dreams that has never happened in history before, Playboy's status as pitiful tede is absolutely fixed.
Wolfe throws away his standards in order to liberate his receptivity for the New. To a great extent he has made an original job of this, but few of his exciting discoveries can really be claimed as a breakthrough in society with the same force as they can be rejected as further corruptions of it. Hefner! Custom cars! (He was very late on the scene there.) Pill-head Mods in groovy Tiles! (Featuring somebody called Larry Lynch, a kid just made to zip around cutely in the under-cranked sequences of a Clive Donner movie.) The Motorcycle Sub-culture! And here Wolfe doesn't hint at the obvious fact that one of the secrets is not that these people can ride bikes better than you and I ride buses, but that they can't ride bikes like Agostini: hence the overblown mystique, which true dedication in any field is usually free of.
Here as elsewhere the social pressure being fought is partly a meritocratic one, the anti-social pressure to be really good at something. To get around it, they form new social groups where the pressure to excel is reduced to an expression of minor gradations, such as lace ruffs and cuffs for the mods or the Totenkopf badges on Hell's Angels, caps. Wolfe's essay on surfing, the best in the book, doesn't square with the other essays on life-styles for just this reason, since it concerns a whole new aesthetic in which excellence is fundamental. Good surfers are poets, and mods are kewpie dolls: unless you are equipped with a cover-up prose style like Wolfe's you can't equate them. The many scenes making up the Wolfean Scene appear all of a piece only to people bereft of analytical powers - trendies, the New Lost.
The new enjoying is something Wolfe only asserts is happening.