Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tom Wolfe's "Hooking Up": Book Review

"The average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman lived a life that would have made the Sun King blink." (3) So opens this millennial survey of how wired, networked, and tangled American lives became circa 2000. Twenty years since Wolfe's last essay collection, this marks a more sober set of reflections on what now, ten years later, seems an optimistic start to what proved a dimmer decade.

Wolfe argues, after the salacious "hooking up" of the sexy title takes but pp. 5-9 to elaborate, that science and academia, along with the media and consumers, connect in ways that allow affluence to rise and, unsurprisingly, intelligence to diminish for the norm. However, those in charge in Wolfe's world continue to wield power, and his fascination with the elite and how they clash with the proles makes this an engaging, if rather stolid, anthology.

The first section, "The Human Beast," examines the meeting of men with machines. Silicon Valley's birth comes with paralleling Josiah Grinnell, who took Horace Greeley's advice first-hand and went at least to the Middle West, of Iowa. His eponymous college schooled almost a century later Bob Noyce and classmates, who would spark the semiconductored, transistored post-WWII boom. This connects with an essay on E.O. Wilson's sociobiology, and while the pair move rapidly and neatly past everyone from Teilhard de Chardin to Nietzsche to Richard Dawkins, Wolfe manages to keep the material accessible. He sums up early Wilson: "He was a skinny runt, and then for years after that he was a beanpole." (78) Wolfe's prose style has calmed down, but he still keeps an eye out for telling details.

On the other hand, other entries here feel already familiar. True, it's always fun to laugh at "Rococo Marxists" and the silliness of an art world that favors a pile of rust by Richard Serra over realistic figures crafted by Frederick Kirk. Of Kirk's rejection by the cognoscenti: "Art worldlings regarded popularity as skill's live-in slut." (137) I agree with Wolfe in both critiques, but in his rush past "The Great Relearning," the piece is too brief to do justice to the topic, and "My Three Stooges" in its lengthy explanation of his book tour for "A Man in Full" saps the essay before it gets around to the more valuable comparison and contrast of naturalistic fiction with film. "Scene-by-scene construction" and "the liberal use of realistic dialogue" share with film the novel's craft; "interior point-of-view" and "the notation of status details," however, show the shortcomings of cinematic narrative. Wolfe defends his subject matter against the attacks of Mailer, Updike, and John Irving spiritedly, but when it comes to his own novella that follows, the interest for me lay more in the dialogue transcribing "Florida Panhandle illiteracy" and the way that two cameras can set up a sting operation and edit out dialogue than the actual plot of how a sleazy pair of operatives, one a manipulative schlub, one a blonde TV personality, pull off their set-up of three gay-bashing Army grunts who are suspected of killing a soldier at Fort Bragg, NC.

Last comes the old Wolfe, a piece that he wrote about Wallace Shawn of the New Yorker despite the magazine's refusal to cooperate officially. Wolfe frames the article for "New York" magazine with a lively reminiscence of mid-60s journalism that recalls the sting operatives above. "I'd heard of skeleton crews before, but this one was bones." (250) The original essay is fine, but for me any appeal lay in how the style that made Wolfe famous played off the more sober air of today's author.

To sum up, after having read his previous journalism collections, this one finds Wolfe spanning his usual series of class studies, social critiques, and media send-ups. It's useful to capture the mood around the year 2000. But placed next to his groundbreaking New Journalism, it's a less combative, more unassuming stance. (Posted to Amazon US 1-28-10)

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