Friday, April 20, 2018

Book Review: The Cooperstown Casebook, by Jay Jaffe (2017)

Baseball writer Jay Jaffe, and his 2017 book The Cooperstown Casebook.


Chick Hafey, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1971.
Being a baseball fan means enjoying a sport that has a long history full of great players and colorful characters. Of course, you can be a baseball fan and not dive deeply into the history of the game, but it seems as though most of us afflicted with a passion for baseball feel very connected to the great players of yesterday. It seems quite natural for most of us to wonder things like, how good would Walter Johnson be if he were pitching in 2018? Would Mike Trout have terrorized pitching during the 1920’s? What would Mickey Mantle’s career have looked like with good knees? 

One of the most hotly debated issues throughout baseball history is: who should be in the Hall of Fame? It’s a question that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, which is why I was excited to read Jay Jaffe’s 2017 book The Cooperstown Casebook: Who’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Who Should Be In, and Who Should Pack Their Plaques. As a young boy, I had several books that presented short biographies and stats about the members of the Hall of Fame. I devoured those books, but I didn’t spend much time thinking about why those players were in the Hall of Fame. I knew that great players like Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth were in the Hall of Fame, but I also knew that Chick Hafey was in the Hall of Fame as well. Hafey’s biggest claims to fame were collecting the very first hit in an All-Star Game, winning the 1931 batting title by .0002, and being one of the first players to wear glasses. As an adult, I look at Hafey’s career and come to the conclusion that while he was an excellent player for several years, ultimately his resume is a little thin for the Hall of Fame. 

In 82 years, the Hall of Fame voting process has not changed much. The various iterations of the Veterans Committee have changed considerably, but the basic premise behind the non-Veterans Committee selectionswriters vote for retired players, if you get more than 75% of the vote, you’re inremains the same. 

For all of the controversies surrounding the Hall of Fame, I would argue that the BBWAA writers have done a pretty darn good job. You could argue that their job isn’t actually that hardit’s pretty easy to say that Mickey Mantle is a Hall of Famer and Placido Polanco is not. Of course, there are more difficult decisions the writers have to make about players who are on the bubblerecent candidates like Steve Garvey, Dale Murphy, and Dave Parker, who spent fifteen years on the ballot without getting elected. (Or just think about all of the ink that was spilled over Jack Morris during his time on the ballot.) Still, their track record is pretty good. Nearly all of the truly awful Hall of Fame selections have come from the various versions of the Veterans Committee. Jesse Haines? Travis Jackson? Ray Schalk? Rick Ferrell? Freddie Lindstrom? All Veterans Committee selections. Of course, the Veterans Committee has also made some excellent selections of players who were unjustly overlooked by the writers, like Johnny Mize, Goose Goslin, Ron Santo, and one of this year’s inductees, Alan Trammell. 

Jay Jaffe has been thinking about who should be in the Hall of Fame for a long time, and he’s developed a metric, called the Jaffe WAR Score, or JAWS for short, that tries to assess whether or not a player meets the standard for his position for the Hall of Fame. In The Cooperstown Casebook Jaffe goes through every player who has been inducted to the Hall of Fame, and assess whether or not they meet the standard. Jaffe’s knowledge about these players runs very deep, and unless you’re a baseball historian yourself, you’ll definitely learn something new. 

The subtitle makes the book sound more opinionated and controversial than it really is. Jaffe is pretty even-handed, and he’s certainly not disparaging of those players he feels were unworthy of induction. And there’s usually some reason that helps explain why those players were inducted. Chick Hafey was inducted in 1971 by the Veterans Committee, which was headed at that time by Frankie Frisch, himself a Hall of Fame second baseman. Who did Frisch play for? Why, the New York Giants from 1919 to 1926, and then the Saint Louis Cardinals from 1927 to 1937. Say, who did Chick Hafey play for? The Cardinals from 1924 to 1931, and the Reds from 1932 to 1935, and also in 1937. Coincidence? Not likely, as Hafey was just one of several Cardinals and Giants players who were teammates of Frisch’s to be inducted during his tenure on the VC. So there’s a reason Hafey was inducted, even if it wasn’t a good reason. 

Jaffe’s writing style is straightforward, and his analysis throughout the book is solid. The Cooperstown Casebook is a deep dive, and as such will probably only appeal to serious Hall of Fame fanatics. That being said, it is an excellent addition to the literature on the Hall of Fame, and one that is sorely needed, as new statistics and metrics to evaluate players gain more and more prominence as baseball fans continue to argue and debate over who deserves the sport’s greatest honor.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Book Review: Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934)

Original cover of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel Tender is the Night, 1934.


F. Scott Fitzgerald, probably late 1920's, as he was writing the novel that would become Tender is the Night.

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, early 1930's.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel Tender is the Night is a powerful and beautiful book that stands next to The Great Gatsby as his other masterpiece. Much like Gatsby, Tender is the Night was underrated upon its original publication and has only grown in stature throughout the years. 

Tender is the Night tells the story of Dick and Nicole Diver’s marriage and Dick’s subsequent descent into alcoholism. The novel opens on the beach of the French Riviera. We first see the Divers through the eyes of Rosemary Hoyt, an eighteen year-old actress so young that “the dew was still on her.” (p.4) Rosemary becomes fascinated with the Divers very quickly, especially the charming Dick. Rosemary imagines that the Divers’ glamourous lives are free from worries: “Rosemary envied them their fun, imagining a life of leisure unlike her own. She knew little of leisure but she had the respect for it of those who have never had it. She thought of it as a resting, without realizing that the Divers were as far from relaxing as she was herself.” (p.99) 

Rosemary is absent from the novel during the beginning of part II, as the narration flashes back to flesh out Dick’s backstory. We see him as a young psychologist who meets Nicole Warren, successfully treats her, and falls in love with her. Part III of the novel is set several years after Part I, and we witness Dick’s dissipation.

Because The Great Gatsby, published in April, 1925, had not become the huge success that Fitzgerald thought it would be, he quickly started work on a follow-up, optimistically thinking that he could deliver another novel soon, with his first target date being the fall of 1926. However, Tender is the Night went through an extraordinarily long and painful gestation period, and it was not published until April, 1934, nine years to the month after Gatsby. During those nine long years many things happened to Francis Scott Fitzgerald, and many of the events of his life would help to shape the plot of Tender is the Night. As Fitzgerald biographer and scholar Scott Donaldson wrote in his essay on the composition of Tender is the Night, “The novel could not possibly have achieved the power of its final form without the passage of nine years between inception and completion.” (Fitzgerald and Hemingway: Works and Days, p.126) Fitzgerald himself said to a friend, “The man who started the novel is not the man who finished it.” (Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, by Matthew Bruccoli, p.365) 

Fitzgerald always worked extremely hard at his writing, but his previous novels had come together much quicker than Tender is the Night. It’s telling of Fitzgerald’s struggle with writing the novel that “progress, lack of” is one of the longest categories for Tender is the Night in the index of Matthew Bruccoli’s biography of Fitzgerald, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur. 

Fitzgerald’s alcoholism, which was always problematic, spiraled out of control during the years he was writing Tender is the Night.  During that same period his marriage to Zelda Sayre was rapidly disintegrating, and she also suffered a series of mental breakdowns, in 1930, 1932, and 1934. 

It’s overly simplistic to say that Fitzgerald was Dick Diver, and Zelda was Nicole Warren Diver, but there were certainly similarities. Fitzgerald always mined his own life and his own experiences, and Zelda’s as well, for his fiction, and he did so in Tender is the Night. 

In Arthur Mizener’s 1965 edition of his biography of Fitzgerald, The Far Side of Paradise, Mizener reprints notes that Fitzgerald made about characters in Tender is the Night. Some of these notes further underscore the connection between Fitzgerald and Dick Diver, as Fitzgerald wrote, “For his external qualities, use anything of Gerald, Ernest, Ben Finny, Archie Mcliesh, Charley McArthur or myself.  He looks, though, like me.” (The Far Side of Paradise, p.348) The Ernest in the quotation is Hemingway, and Gerald is Gerald Murphy, another likely model for aspects of Dick Diver. Gerald and Sara Murphy were wealthy American expatriates who lived in France in the 1920’s and were renowned for their parties and the wide social circle of artists they knew. Scott and Zelda were good friends of the Murphys’, although Scott’s bad behavior did get him ejected from several of the Murphys’ parties, and Fitzgerald dedicated Tender is the Night to them. Certainly the bon vivant Dick Diver of Part I of Tender is the Night owes a large debt to Gerald Murphy, although Murphy did not slide into dissipated alcoholism the way Diver did. 

Under notes for Nicole Diver, Fitzgerald wrote: “Portrait of Zeldathat is, a part of Zelda.” (Paradise, p.350) It seems clear that Fitzgerald used some of Zelda’s characteristics in creating Nicole Diver, but even in this note he makes it clear that he used only a part of Zelda, and not her whole personality. 

While I think that Dick Diver is not simply a stand-in for F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are several interesting similarities between author and character. In the beginning of the novel, Diver is described as someone who gives “carnivals of affection” to people. (p.27) Sober, Fitzgerald was an extremely charming man, and there are many stories about the effect his personality had on people. Andrew Turnbull was a biographer of Fitzgerald’s who also knew him. Fitzgerald rented a house on the Turnbull’s property in Maryland in 1932, when Andrew was 11 years old. Turnbull wrote of him: “Fitzgerald focused on youeven riveted on youand if there was one thing you were sure of, it was that whatever you happened to be talking about was the most important matter in the world.” (Scott Fitzgerald, p.225) Turnbull also wrote of him: “…there was always something of the magician in Fitzgerald. He was the inventor, the creator, the tireless impresario who brightened our days and made other adult company seem dull and profitless. It wasn’t so much any particular skill of his as a quality of caring, of believing, of pouring his whole soul and imagination into whatever he did with us.” (Turnbull, p.229)

In a 1938 letter Fitzgerald wrote about Diver: “Dick’s curiosity and interest in people was realhe didn’t stare at themhe glanced at them and felt them.” (Fool for Love, by Scott Donaldson, p.196) Although this is a subjective judgment, I would bet that Fitzgerald was like that too. He was a highly sensitive man who was fascinated by people and would often pepper them with questions at parties. 

Fitzgerald mined his real life in the passages describing Dick Diver’s father. Fitzgerald’s father Edward died in 1931, and in an unfinished essay, “The Death of My Father,” Fitzgerald reflected on his importance to his own upbringing:

 “I loved my fatheralways deep in my subconscious I have referred judgements back to him, to what he would have thought or done. He loved meand felt a deep responsibility for meI was born several months after the sudden death of my two elder sisters and he felt what the effect of this would be on my mother, that he would be my only moral guide. He became that to the best of his ability. He came from tired old stock with very little left of vitality and mental energy but he managed to raise a little for me.” (A Short Autobiography, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 2011, p.118)

This passage is repeated almost word for word when Dick learns of his father’s death: 

“Dick loved his fatheragain and again he referred judgements to what his father would probably have thought or done. Dick was born several months after the death of two young sisters and his father, guessing what would be the effect on Dick’s mother, had saved him from a spoiling by becoming his moral guide. He was of tired stock yet he raised himself to that effort.” (Tender is the Night, p.203) 

When a young Dick Diver is asked about his plans, he replies, “I’ve only got one, Franz, and that’s to be a good psychologistmaybe to be the greatest one that ever lived.” (p.132) This quote mirrors what Fitzgerald said to his friend Edmund WilsonWilson recalled Fitzgerald saying to him, after they had attended Princeton together, “I want to be one of the greatest writers who have ever lived, don’t you?” (Fool for Love, p.37) 

Dick Diver is also a habitual flirt, as was Fitzgerald. “He was in love with every pretty woman he saw now, their forms at a distance, their shadows on a wall.” (p.201) Fitzgerald’s infatuations could begin with just a glance as well. The actress Carmel Myers recalled introducing Fitzgerald to a woman at a party in Hollywood. Fitzgerald’s first words to the woman were, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” (Fool for Love, p.53) 

The most obvious parallel between Dick Diver and Fitzgerald is their drinking. During the period he was writing Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald’s drinking became extremely problematic. Fitzgerald had always been a heavy drinker, but now his alcoholism was taking a toll on his friendships and his ability to focus on his writing. One of the most beautiful, sad lines in Tender is the Night is when Nicole says to Dick, “But you used to want to create thingsnow you seem to want to smash them up.” (p.267) I think this line rings true for Fitzgerald as well. For whatever reason, Fitzgerald behaved in very self-destructive ways and lost many friendships because of this, especially during the period when he was writing Tender is the Night. Fitzgerald biographer Scott Donaldson wrote: “In his papers at Princeton are at least three lists of snubs, with the longest of them naming a total of sixty-six people who had snubbed him during the 1925-29 period. To have been put down by so many in so short a time suggests (1) that some of the snubs were imaginary rather than real, though it was during these years that he and Zelda became personae non gratae because of their drinking and quarreling, and (2) that out of masochism or self-hatred he was actually courting the disapproval of others.” (Fool for Love, p.181)

When he was drunk, Fitzgerald’s personality underwent a radical transformation. The charming and intelligent man disappeared and he became belligerent and mean. Fitzgerald tried the patience of Gerald and Sara Murphy, as he threw ashtrays at one party and deliberately broke wineglasses at another. The incident at the end of Tender is the Night, the nadir of Dick Diver’s descent into drink, where he gets into a fight with an Italian taxi driver, and gets beaten up and taken to jail, actually happened to Fitzgerald himself. (Fool for Love, p.164-5) 

Another subject of Tender is the Night is marital infidelity, which was yet another issue that the Fitzgeralds dealt with. Both Scott and Zelda were attractive people who enjoyed flirting, but a serious threat to their marriage developed during the summer of 1924. As Scott was finishing up The Great Gatsby, Zelda was spending more and more time with French aviator Edouard Jozan. Whether or not Zelda and Jozan actually had a physical affair is a subject of debate among Fitzgerald scholars, but whatever the particulars were, their relationship created a great deal of tension between Scott and Zelda. Scott wrote years later in his notebooks, “That September 1924, I knew something had happened that could never be repaired.” (The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald, p.113) Scott had a relationship with actress Lois Moran, who was only seventeen when they met in 1927. Moran became the model for Rosemary Hoyt in Tender is the Night, who is in many ways presented as Nicole Diver’s opposite. 

Insanity is another prominent theme in Tender is the Night, and yet another way that Fitzgerald’s turbulent personal life found its way into his fiction. Zelda’s breakdowns prompted Scott to make mental health a theme of the novel. Nicole’s sister Baby Warren asks Dick, “Well, how can anyone tell what’s eccentric and what’s crazy?” (p.151) This quote seems especially apropos of Zelda and Scott’s behavior, both drunken and sober. Is it crazy or eccentric to throw yourself down a flight of stone steps? (Zelda) Is it crazy or eccentric to burn your clothes in a bathtub in a fit of jealousy? (Zelda) Is it crazy or eccentric to jump into the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel? (Scott) Is it crazy or eccentric to throw ashtrays at a fancy dinner party? (Scott) The list could go on and on.

Zelda actually wrote her own novel during the time Scott was laboring over his long-awaited book. Titled Save Me the Waltz, it was written in only a month or two while Zelda was undergoing treatment at Johns Hopkins. The mere existence of the book deeply angered Scott, as he did not know Zelda was writing a novel, and was probably jealous that Zelda had written her book so quickly while he was laboring through numerous drafts and revisions of his own novel. Save Me the Waltz added considerably to what was now a state of continual tension and resentment between Scott and Zelda. Scott was hopeful that Save Me the Waltz would earn enough money so he could discharge his debt to Scribner’s, who had been advancing him money throughout the writing of Tender is the Night. That did not happen, as Save Me the Waltz was published in October, 1932 to little fanfare and not much interest from the book-buying public. 

As befitting the difficult writing, even the title of Tender is the Night was a long time in coming. The book went through many possible titles. Among the early titles were Our Type, The World’s Fair, The Melarky Case, and The Boy Who Killed His Mother. (Works and Days, p.120) Even as the novel took shape, the title still kept changing, from The Drunkard’s Holiday, to Doctor Diver’s Holiday, to Richard Diver, and then finally, to Tender is the Night, from a line in John Keats’ poem, “Ode to a Nightingale.” (Works and Days, p.135) 

Tender is the Night was published to generally positive reviews, and the book sold respectably, but, as usual, not as well as Fitzgerald had hoped. Fitzgerald scholar Matthew Bruccoli wrote of the reception of Tender is the Night, “As a consequence of Fitzgerald’s commercial magazine work and his playboy image it had become increasingly difficult for critics to appraise the serious novelist…Fitzgerald’s wastrel reputation impeded the recognition of his best work.” (Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, p.366)

Fitzgerald’s disappointment over the sales of Tender is the Night led him to second-guess the novel’s structure, and by late 1938 or early 1939 he was attempting to re-structure the book in chronological order, thinking this might make it more appealing to readers. After Fitzgerald’s death, Malcolm Cowley used Fitzgerald’s notes for his planned re-structuring as the basis for the 1951 revision of Tender is the Night. Today Cowley’s version is out of print, and most scholars and critics prefer Fitzgerald’s original 1934 version of the novel. Fitzgerald’s tinkering with Tender is the Night may show his insecurities, but it is also further proof of his dedication to his craft and his seriousness about writing. He was constantly rewriting and editing, making numerous changes to the novel between the magazine serialization in Scribner’s and the final book publication.

Scott Donaldson wrote of Tender is the Night, “It was a novel undervalued in its own time, one whose reputation has developed over the decades.” (Works and Days, p.138) Now Fitzgerald fans put the novel alongside The Great Gatsby as one of Fitzgerald’s masterpieces. 

Towards the end of the novel, Fitzgerald writes of Nicole: “She felt the nameless fear which precedes all emotions, joyous or sorrowful, inevitable as a hum of thunder precedes a storm.” (p.294) This is just one of the many beautiful, moving sentences from a novel written by an author who felt so deeply the pain and ecstasy of human existence, and described it all so well.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Book Review: Hooking Up, by Tom Wolfe (2000)


The paperback cover of Hooking Up, by Tom Wolfe, 2000.


Tom Wolfe on the cover of Time magazine in 1998, as his novel A Man in Full was published.
Hooking Up, published in 2000, is Tom Wolfe’s most recent collection of non-fiction pieces. It also contains a novella, “Ambush at Fort Bragg.” The writings collected in Hooking Up appeared in a variety of publications, and demonstrate Wolfe’s wide interest in many different facets of modern American life. 

As someone who was a college student in the year 2000, I can attest that the title piece was a pretty accurate summary of college life at that time. Wolfe’s examination of campus life at the turn of the millennium would provide inspiration for his next novel after Hooking Up, 2004’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. Wolfe explains to the reader that “hooking up” is the new way that young people meet each other. As Wolfe writes, “The old term ‘dating’referring to a practice in which a boy asked a girl out for the evening and took her to the movies or dinnerwas now deader than ‘proletariat’ or ‘pornography’ or ‘perversion.’” (p.6) I was naively shocked when I got to college and discovered that people didn’t date very muchit was mainly about hooking up. 

 “Two Young Men Who Went West” connects 19th century politician and pioneer Josiah Grinnell and 20th century engineer Robert Noyce, who pioneered the microchip and was the co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel Corporation. What do Grinnell and Noyce have in common? Well, Grinnell founded the town of Grinnell, Iowa, home to Grinnell College, which was Noyce’s alma mater. The parallels between Grinnell and Noyce are perhaps overstated in the articleyou can hear the framing device creak now and then as Wolfe stretches it out. However, Noyce is a pretty interesting guy to read about, as he was one of the founders of what came to be called Silicon Valley. 

“Digibabble, Fairy Dust, and the Human Anthill” bites off a lot, covering the careers and theories of priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, media critic Marshall McLuhan, and finally biologist Edward O. Wilson, one of the chief Darwinists of the late 20th century. All three men were people who had unified theories about human behavior. Wolfe is always suspicious of those who claim to have all of the answers. (He wrote about Marshall McLuhan in the article “What if He is Right?” in The Pump House Gang.) Wolfe is also skeptical about Darwinism providing all of the answers to human behavior. This piece plants some of the seeds that will sprout in The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe’s 2016 book about how human speech developed.

“Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died” is about brain imaging. It fits in again with The Kingdom of Speech, as Wolfe examines neuroscientists who think they have all of the answers to human behavior. According to Wolfe, there are neuroscientists who think that they could predict someone’s life down to the very minute. (p.97) Wolfe sees neuroscience and brain imaging as being part of a great shift during the late 20th century away from the dominant theories of the century, Marxism and Freudianism. (p.100) 

Wolfe frets that this shift towards science could lead to a collapse of personal responsibilitythat people will excuse their behavior based on their wiring. “Don’t blame me, honey. Four hundred thousand years of evolution made me do it.” (p.104-6) Wolfe seems to wonder, if we are only these walking, talking computers, then where’s the mystery, the poetry of life? If everything is predetermined from birth, then why go on with the charade?

“In the Land of the Rococo Marxists” is an excellent takedown of liberal academic pretensions. Wolfe writes about the turn of the millennium, and how little it was remarked upon in the media. “My impression was that one American Century rolled into another with all the pomp and circumstance of a mouse pad.” (p.114) 

Wolfe writes that “For eighty-two years now, America’s intellectuals, right on time, as Nietzsche predicted it, have expressed their skepticism toward American life.” (p.128) Wolfe, despite his consistently ironic viewpoint, does not have as much skepticism towards American life, writing: “The country turned into what the utopian socialists of the nineteenth century, the Saint-Simons and Fouriers, had dreamed about: an El Dorado where the average workingman would have the political freedom, the personal freedom, the money, and the free time to fulfill his potential in any way he saw fit.” (p.119) 

This has been a favorite theme of Wolfe’s since the 1960’s, that America is actually in the middle of a happiness explosion, rather than constantly teetering on the brink of incipient fascism, as most liberals have said it is. 

“The Invisible Artist” is about the sculptor Frederick Hart. Hart was a realistic sculptor, and he worked on the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Hart was also the sculptor for The Three Soldiers, also known as The Three Servicemen, which depicts American soldiers in Vietnam overlooking the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. (And was added after Vietnam veterans raised a furor over sculptor Maya Lin’s controversial design for the Memorial.) Wolfe makes the point that although Hart worked on several important commissions and became very successful in his own right, the mainstream art publications never gave him the time of day, so he never became accepted as a “serious” artist. According to Wolfe, if you don’t fit in the appropriate boxes as an artist, you won’t get any press. This fits in very well with Wolfe’s 1975 book on modern art, The Painted Word, in which he makes an argument along a similar line. 

Wolfe writes in “The Invisible Artist” that “Art worldlings regarded popularity as skill’s live-in slut. Popularity meant shallowness. Rejection by the public meant depth.” (p.137) Wolfe has a point here. In the visual arts, as in jazz, popular success is often scorned and questionedthe assumption is that if you’ve had mainstream success you’ve “sold out” in some way. 

 “The Great Relearning” is a short piece about the late 20th century. Wolfe predicts that the 21st century will be known as the “Twentieth Century’s Hangover.” (p.144) It remains to be seen if he is correct or not.

“My Three Stooges” describes a great literary feud. John Updike and Norman Mailer, two of America’s leading writers, wrote very critical reviews of Wolfe’s 1998 novel A Man in Full. John Irving also got into the act, swearing at Wolfe on TV and attacking his skill as a writer. 

In “My Three Stooges,” Wolfe swung back hard, calling Updike and Mailer “two old piles of bones.” (p.152) Updike, Mailer, and Irving all essentially said that A Man in Full wasn’t literature, but Wolfe fired back that in fact, A Man in Full was the best kind of literaturea book that drew on real-world reporting. On a TV show, Wolfe said that his three critics had “wasted their careers by not engaging the life around them.” (p.156) In other words, they should have been writing novels the way Tom Wolfe does. This was an oversimplification on Wolfe’s part, since Mailer had been alternating journalism with fiction since the early 1960’s, and indeed, many of his most famous books drew heavily on non-fiction reportingbooks like The Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, The Fight, and The Executioner’s Song. While Updike didn’t do journalistic writing, his novels still depended on an accurate picture of a specific time in America, and his Rabbit tetralogy books are full of his attention to real life details. 

Why were Updike and Mailer so hostile to Wolfe? They may have simply been jealous of Wolfe’s staggering sales success, or they may have been settling scores that were decades old. Updike may have been peeved by Wolfe’s 1965 takedown of The New Yorker, the magazine that was closely associated with Updike for his entire career. Or, he might have been annoyed by Wolfe’s 1964 article about him in the New York Herald Tribune, which Updike quoted in his 1998 speech upon receiving the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Updike quoted from the first two paragraphs of Wolfe’s story, which included the lines, “No sensitive artist in America will ever have to duck the spotlight again. John Updike, the Ipswich, Mass., novelist, did it for them all last night, for all time.” (John Updike, More Matter, p.853) Wolfe then goes on to describe Updike blushing. In his speech, Updike said he remembers the evening differently than Wolfe. Updike also said that someone offered him a program to sign on that long-ago night: “That, and the subsequent report by Tom Wolfe, were my first taste of the joys of celebrity.” (More Matter, p.853) It seems clear that Updike had a vivid memory of the first time his celebrity was mocked in print. 

Mailer’s beef with Wolfe goes back to the 1960’s as well. Specifically, to Wolfe’s March 1965 review of Mailer’s novel An American Dream. Wolfe’s review, titled “Son of Crime and Punishment: Or, How to go Eight Fast Rounds with the Heavyweight Champand Lose,” posits the theory that Mailer was trying to complete with Dostoevsky, and Wolfe ends the review by comparing Mailer to James M. Cain, author of hard-boiled fiction like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. 

The same month that Wolfe’s review appeared, Mailer said of the review in a New York Post interview, “The review is personally insulting as opposed to critically insulting.” (Conversations with Norman Mailer, p.100) Two years later, Mailer was still smarting over Wolfe’s review, telling Newsday in October 1967: “I never mind a bad review so long as the reviewer stays in bounds. But that one bothered me. When Wolfe started in telling me how to writewhen he said it would have been better if I started the book on page 14well, I objected to that. It struck me as kind of…punky, smartass, you know.” (Conversations with Norman Mailer, p.110) Mailer was famous for getting terrible book reviewstwice he took out ads for his books with the negative reviews highlighted, rather than the positive reviewsso it really says something that Wolfe’s words got under his skin.
Updike’s review of A Man in Full had dismissed the book as falling short of literature, and Mailer’s review took a similar tack, as it was full of questions like: “Is one encountering a major novel or a major best seller?” There’s a bit of the pot calling the kettle black here, as Mailer writes as though he had never hankered after having best-sellers of his own. 

Mailer does have words of praise for the book, but in the best Midwestern, passive-aggressive style, there are always reservations: “Extraordinarily good writing forces one to contemplate the uncomfortable possibility that Tom Wolfe might yet be seen as our best writer. How grateful one can feel then for his failures and his final inability to be great—his absence of truly large compass.” Mailer is still thinking that American writing is like a heavyweight boxing match! Thank God Wolfe didn’t have the stamina! He broke down in the fifth round! He was busy looking at the referee’s shoes, trying to figure out what brand they were, and then WHOMP! Norman finally landed that right hook!

Just as Wolfe compared Mailer to Dostoevsky and intimated that he fell short and was more like James M. Cain, so Mailer compares Wolfe to Dickens, and intimates that Wolfe falls short, so he compares him to…Margaret Mitchell. They are both confining the other to the status of mere genre novelists, rather than Great American Novelists. 

 “Ambush at Fort Bragg: A Novella,” is moderately interesting, as it shows Wolfe’s great talent for getting inside the minds of status-conscious, insecure mennamely Irv Durtscher, the producer of a TV show that is about to get a murder confession from three Army recruits. 

A gift for long-time Wolfe fans in Hooking Up was the first publication in a book of Wolfe’s two articles from 1965 about The New Yorker, “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead,” and “Lost in the Whichy Thickets.” Both are superb skewerings of The New Yorker’s self-important style. I’ve been an admirer of many of the writers associated with The New Yorker, in particular the “three Johns,” O’Hara, Cheever, and Updike. That being said, I find the magazine itself to be quite full of itself. 

Wolfe is stinging in his critique of New Yorker editor William Shawn, who helmed the magazine from 1952 until 1987. Wolfe writes: “William Shawn has not lapsed for a moment from the labor to which he dedicated himself upon the death of Harold Ross. To preserve The New Yorker just as Ross left it, exactly, in…perpetuity.” (p.270) 

Coming in for criticism also is what Wolfe calls the “fact-gorged sentence,” something that, in my opinion, still plagues The New Yorker. “All those clauses, appositions, amplifications, qualifications, asides, God knows what else, hanging inside the poor old skeleton of one sentence like some kind of Spanish moss.” (p.273) 

In an afterword, Wolfe details the heat he felt after the two New Yorker articles were published, as numerous national figures, ranging from J.D. Salinger to Walter Lippmann, denounced him in print. But Wolfe survived to write another day. 

It’s too bad that Hooking Up doesn’t include the essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” first published in the pages of Harper’s in November, 1989. It outlines Wolfe’s thoughts about realism in American fiction writingperhaps it was deemed to be too repetitive, as Wolfe chronicles some of the same arguments about fiction in “My Three Stooges.” Regardless, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” is well worth seeking out. 

Hooking Up is something of a coda to the large and distinguished body of non-fiction work that Wolfe has left us, including such classics as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Radical Chic, and The Right Stuff. As Michael Lewis wrote in the November 2015 issue of Vanity Fair, “The marketplace will encourage Wolfe to write nothing but novels. And a funny thing happens. The moment he abandons it, the movement he shaped will lose its head of steam. The New Journalism: Born 1963, Died 1979. R.I.P. What was that all about? It was mainly about Tom Wolfe, I think.” (p.194) Wolfe largely moved on from journalism after The Right Stuff, and the pieces in Hooking Up, while very good, do not have the same impact that Wolfe’s earlier journalism did.