TOM WOLFE pauses now, after the publication of 10 books, to present his readers with a mid-career anthology. We should be grateful, no doubt, but not to excess. The production of a large, assertive volume such as this is a declaration of one's own stature -- all the more so when the writer acquires, as Wolfe has, a pet professor to formulate, complete with footnotes, a rhapsody in one's honor that climaxes in sheer ecstasy: "No other writer of our time has aspired to capture the fabled Spirit of the Age so fully and has succeeded so well." Thus speaks Joe David Bellamy of St. Lawrence University in his introduction; the evidence, predictably, indicates that he exaggerates.
The selections herein gathered were chosen by Wolfe himself, as well as the numerous cartoons and sketches from his own hand that provide malicious and delicious illustration. Therefore The Purple Decades is the authorized version, Wolfe's greatest hits as ordained by the master himself. What The Purple Decades tells us, then, is that Wolfe sees himself as a chronicler of three broad subjects: the vulgarity, pretension and cynicism of life during the period that he has penetratingly characterized as "the Me Decade"; the con game played on the public by the high priests and priestesses of modern art and architecture; the daring deeds of those few remaining souls--stock-car drivers, combat pilots, test pilots, astronauts--who undertake acts of individual courage during an age of collective timidity. His marks in the first category are startlingly high, but rather lower in the second and third; and too often his feats of social observation are gravely diminished by his showy, self-declarative prose.
Certain of these pieces are classics, if minor ones: "These Radical Chic Evenings" and "Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers," in which Wolfe explores the bizarre encounters between white liberal guilt and black urban radicalism; "The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening," the definitive examination of the culture of self; "The Intelligent Coed's Guide to America" and "Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine," in which Wolfe annihilates the cozy little world where the literati and the collegiati reside. These are exercises in social commentary written by a master of the craft, a satirist whose perceptive eye is matched by the exuberant cruelty with which he describes what he sees:
"This teacher was a white woman. She was one of those Peter, Paul and Mary-type intellectuals. She didn't wear nylons, she didn't wear makeup, she had bangs and long straight brown hair down to below her shoulders. You see a lot of middle-class white intellectual women like that in California. They have a look that is sort of Pioneer Hip or Salt of the Earth Hip, with flat- heeled shoes and big Honest Calves."
Or there is this description of a member of America's "native intelligentsia":
"Did he want to analyze the world systematically? Did he want to add to the store of human knowledge? . . . Did he even want to change the world? Not particularly; it was much more elegant to back exotic, impossible causes such as the Black Panthers'. Moral indignation was the main thing; that, and a certain pattern of consumption. In fact, by the 1960s it was no longer necessary to produce literature, scholarship or art -- or even to be involved in such matters, except as a consumer -- in order to qualify as an intellectual. It was only necessary to live la vie intellectuelle. A little brown bread in the bread box, a lapsed pledge card to CORE, a stereo and a record rack full of Coltrane and all the Beatles albums from 'Revolver' on, white walls, a huge Dracenaena marginata plant, which is there because all the furniture is so clean-lined and spare that without this piece of frondose tropical Victoriana the room looks empty, a stack of unread New York Review of Books rising up in a surly mound of subscription guilt, the conviction that America is materialistic, repressive, bloated and deadened by its Silent Majority, which resides in the heartland, three grocery boxes full of pop bottles wedged in behind the refrigerator and destined (one of these days) for the recycling center, a small, uncomfortable European car--that pretty well got the job done."
How true, and how devastating in its observed detail. Wolfe is a positive glutton for the minutiae of style: the nuances and signals, the designer labels and brand names, through which we attempt to tell the world who we are, or who we think we are, or who we would like to be. So long as he keeps from rattling off into exclamation points and ellipses and capital letters -- so long as he refrains from the exceses of a prose style that is capable of saying, "Look at me," with as much self-absorption as any Me Decade encounter-group faddist -- he is a penetrating, funny, devastating social critic.
He is less effective as a critic of art and architecture because his chief instruments of attack are ridicule and bile; though more often than not I find myself agreeing with him on specific artists, art gurus and works of art, and though his depiction of modern art as fulfilling the needs of "social chic" strikes me as entirely accurate, he seems nonetheless when dealing with these matters to be less informed than merely prejudiced. As for his pieces about his own brand of heroes -- Junior Johnson, Pete Conrad, Chuck Yeager -- these are fine pieces of reporting, but they simply don't amount to as much as his social commentary, and the decidedly worshipful tone in which they are couched is rather incongruous coming from one so flamboyantly dandified as is Wolfe himself; no doubt the psychiatrists could have a field day with his obsession with these earthily charismatic figures, but I would not wish that on him.
In all of these pieces Wolfe displays himself as father of the "new" journalism. As is invariably the case, the father is vastly more expert than the countless children who have sprung up in imitation. Though he is given to stylistic excess, he rarely permits himself forays into the minds of his subjects that are not substantiated by the evidence he has accumulated; by comparison with all the crypto-Wolfes, he is the very model of restraint. He is also a terrific reporter, and it is unfortunate that Bellamy attempts to elevate him into the higher preserve of literature. Why is it that Wolfe, who so detests pretense, has himself taken on a professor in order to give himself airs? Oh, well: Wolfe's craft, which is substantial, will survive Bellamy's exegesis and Wolfe's own implicit endorsement of it.