Monday, November 25, 2013

On Reading Tom Wolfe

Recently I was reading an article that mentioned something that Tom Wolfe wrote and published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1989. Wolfe’s article was about the decline of realistic novels in 20th century American fiction, and was written soon after he had published his first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities. Since I’m a big fan of realistic fiction, I looked up the article and read it. It’s called “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” and in it he recounts how he was planning to write a novel set in New York City for many years; this would be a novel in which the city itself is a major character. He wrote about how it’s difficult to come up with imaginary characters or events when there are such outlandish characters and events in the news every day, but claims that we should still try. I recommend this article to anyone who’s interested in trends in contemporary fiction.

I first read Tom Wolfe when I was in college. I was lucky enough to make some friends who had read a lot of what was popular among college students in the early 1980s. I particularly remember one conversation that took place at a party. A friend of a friend was there; I remember what he looked like, but can’t remember his name at all. He recommended that I read Carlos Castenada’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I spent the next few years reading these and other books by the same authors. I read Wolfe’s Radical Chic, and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, and much later, Bonfire of the Vanities. I liked his non-fiction a lot, and while I enjoyed reading Bonfire, I did think that he went on for too long in many places; he could have condensed the book somewhat, without losing anything. I bought A Man in Full, but I never read it; I think the size has put me off. One of these years I’m going to get to it!

I’ve seen Tom Wolfe speak in public a couple of times. I attended a reading and lecture at the Three Rivers Lecture Series in Pittsburgh back in the 1990s. This may be how I ended up with the copy of A Man in Full. I also attended a presentation by him that was hosted by Book Expo American around the time that he came out with I am Charlotte Simmons. That appealed to me a bit less, and I do not have that book. There was something a bit off-putting about a man his age who was so interested in portraying the life of college students and the hook up culture they enjoy… Nevertheless, he’s an amazing writer!

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