A favorite lament among writers these days is that comtemporary events and behavior have become too absurd to satirize. Tom Wolfe echoes this common wisdom: "No sooner do you think you have hit upon a piece of Rabelaisian hyperbole for our time than reality shrinks you like a wet sock."
Having concluded that even his fertile imagination cannot keep up with "the true stories of the twentieth century," Wolfe has wisely confined himself to observing the current scene rather than embellishing it. And lest mere words be inadequate to describe these bizarre times, he has gilded his commentaries with his own drawings. Readers of Harper's will recognize the drawings from his regular feature in that magazine, and all of us will see in them a depressingly accurate picture of Western Man gone amok.
Like a latter-day Dante clinically inspecting the Inferno, Wolfe travels from one level of our society to another, recording not the painful tortures of Hell, but the frantic pleasures of Pig Heaven. It's a heaven just as stratified as the Inferno, but here the inhabitants are separated not by their sins, but by their education, geography and income bracket. A furniture mover complains about the cost of his wife's flying lessons; "down-filled" expatriates from the lower classes wear turtleneck sweaters and Gucci belts under their jackets and drive two-door cars with instrument panels like F-16's; and an upper-class New York intellectual is invariably recognized by his Mies van der Rohe S-shaped tubular-steel cane-bottomed dining-room chairs and his thin wife "starved to near perfection."
These characters and dozens more are portrayed by Wolfe with a bite and sarcasm that social critics of an earlier time reserved for capitalist exploiters and the idle rich. But times have changed. The robber barons of yesteryear who shouted "the public be damned" within earshot of the working press are now the beneficient patrons of the arts on public television. And the struggling wage earner, sanctified in the drawings of Daumier and the paintings of Shahn and Evergood, is now as sybaritic as his boss.
The old villains are hidden from view, and one cannot be too critical of Wolfe for taking aim at the gauche specimens that are all too visible. These metamorphosed proletarians with a wallet full of plastic credit cards make life for an elitist like Wolfe damn uncomfortable. He has even had to forego the pleasure of wearing white suits since John Travolta made them popular with Italian punks from Brooklyn.
Personally, I think it is still better sport to aim at the hidden enemies, but Wolfe is entitled to choose his own targets, and no one can deny he hits these with unerring accuracy -- at least when he uses his typewriter. The pen and ink drawings, although amusing, lack the spontaneity and sureness of hand that would make them first rate. But it would be outrageously unfair to the rest of us if he drew as well as he wrote.