Monday, August 23, 2010

Tom Wolfe

While browsing in Bookhampton in Southampton last week I noted that an elderly gentleman standing to my right wore a tailored sportcoat made of what appeared to be a gossamer-thin white linen half-lined in seersucker. The buttons on his sleeve, four of them, were functional and not decorative. A great swoop of white hair rose up from a high-forehead; he wore white trousers, white canvas deck shoes (they looked more like Keds than Sperrys) and, incongruously, a cummerbund. The latter was the tipoff: Of course this was none other than my fellow Richmonder Tom Wolfe.

author photo

I admit to freezing up and not approaching the man even though we'd have had plenty to talk about. My father, as a youngish lawyer in Richmond, wrote up the elder Mrs Wolfe's will, with young Tom's assistance; later in high school I painted a family friend's house and one day a large envelope tumbled in through the slot bearing a calligraphic pen and ink greeting done up in rococo flourishes that I recognized immediately from our family's copy of Wolfe's In Our Time, a book I loved as a youth and still love now. I knew the family still kept up with Wolfe--I think the mister was a classmate of Wolfe's in high school--and I admit now to being fascinated then by my sudden proximity to greatness, to fame.

I waited excitedly for the installments of Bonfire in Rolling Stone and the first book on tape I ever heard was John Lithgow reading the rather different version of the novel that appeared later in the 80s.

In fact I've always been fascinated by Wolfe's position in the literary cosmos even as I don't always agree with him. I took his side in the great Three Stooges debate less because I disliked Mailer, Irving or Updike and more because I liked the theater; I liked believing that the opinions of writers, even if they were beating one another up, could still garner attention in the broader forum. Who would those writers be today? Franzen vs. Lethem vs....Whom? Eggers?

Katie Roiphe tried but this one didn't last long.

There's an impish quality to Wolfe that mostly goes unnoticed, a mischievous subversiveness that poked holes in Irving's and Updike's pretentious broadsides, and I believed that Wolfe was in on the joke while the others were taking their roles as literary lions too seriously. He knew it was theater. He was trying to reconnect the act of writing fiction with a broader populace that exists somewhere north of WWF and Snooki and well south of the wealthy, neurotic and solipsistic characters that inhabit much of Irving's fiction.

Here is an interesting interview with Charlie Rose.

I regret not saying something to him now and maybe being invited over for a drink. I regret not saying something to Jennet Conant on the street the following day even though I was enjoying her book The Irregulars. I regret that we're not still there, on vacation, able to watch James Salter read in East Hampton this weekend.

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