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Tom Wolfe, Way Cool Under the Collar

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2004; Page C01

On the dust jacket of the new novel he looks marvelous, so perfectly erect, positively immaculate in his ice cream suit, the knot of the tie just so, the handkerchief winking from a breast pocket, the whole package telling the observer that here is a man who, through careful practice, has learned to get dressed in just 45 minutes.

Tom Wolfe's hands are pocketed, signaling a man at ease. At first glance he seems amused by something, but the brow is knitted, the corners of the mouth turned down. Perhaps he is on the verge of a harumph. A snort, maybe. He's decidedly defiant.


When the New Journalism was really new: The photo of Tom Wolfe on the dust jacket of "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" in 1968. (Jacques Lowe For Farrar, Straus And Giroux)

The reader realizes that this signature look of his, this costume of the dandy, has become over the years the uniform of a culture warrior. And that he's not in this war just for laughs.

Now look at him in person: He's making a book tour appearance at the D.C. office of the Aspen Institute, in an office building looming above Dupont Circle. He's just as resplendent as that character on the dust jacket, but he carries his years more obviously, seems a bit frail, has the slightest suggestion of a stoop. His combed-back hair is wispy and gray. Everything about him is sort of fading away.

Wolfe is 73, and his age has not escaped the notice of book critics. In their assaults on his new novel on college depravity, "I Am Charlotte Simmons," they note whenever possible that the author is an old man. There are allegations that he's just too old to be trying to pull off this sort of thing -- that he no longer has the eyes and ears to discern correctly what's happening on a college campus.

When the critics refer to him as a "septuagenarian," Wolfe tells the Aspen Institute crowd, "they call me that as though it's my occupation."

He adds that when he hung out at college parties while researching the novel, doing his Man From Mars routine (he never tries to blend in when he reports), "I was apparently too old to be a drug enforcement agent."

The problem is, old guys aren't supposed to write about the young, particularly at the level of intimacy that a Wolfe novel requires. His college characters seem rather improbably taken with Britney Spears, who is so five-years-ago (though Wolfe tells this crowd that he's checked the tabloids -- "Don't tell me that Britney Spears is history"). Whatever: Why can't he pick on people his own age?

On book tour, he spends a lot of time disapproving of the young. He's the stereotype of a cranky grandpa.

"Today, colleges do not talk about responsibility. You may hear the word 'leadership' from a college president, but you won't hear the word 'character,' " he says.

Kids don't pray.

"We have now raised a generation minus religion."

Age comes to all men, but it's a difficult sight in this case, for Wolfe has always been the most youthful, effervescent writer. He's the most exclamatory. He's always thrilled by his journalistic discoveries, and unafraid to blare the news. Here's the young Wolfe, exulting in his collection of articles titled "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby":

"The Peppermint Lounge! You know about the Peppermint Lounge . . ."


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