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.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Book Review: Three "Whys" of the Russian Revolution, by Richard Pipes (1995)

Three "Whys" of the Russian Revolution, by Richard Pipes, 1995.

Historian Richard Pipes.
I first read Richard Pipes’ book Three “Whys” of the Russian Revolution in high school, back in the late 1990’s, after I took an excellent class called “Russia in the 20th century,” which piqued my interest in Russian history. I re-read Pipes’ book this winter, and I was impressed by his analysis of the Russian Revolution.

Three “Whys” of the Russian Revolution is a short book, just 84 pages long, and it’s a distillation of some of the ideas that Pipes presented in his 1991 book The Russian Revolution. The three questions that Pipes seeks to answer in the book are:

  1. Why did tsarism fall?
  2. Why did the Bolsheviks succeed? 
  3. Why did Stalin succeed Lenin?
Pipes argues that there was nothing inevitable about the fall of the Romanov dynasty in 1917, making the point that even Vladimir Lenin predicted in January 1917 that he would not live to see a revolution in Russia. (p.12)

Pipes also makes a compelling case for the Bolsheviks’ triumph as being one of a cunning coup d’├ętat mixed with good luck, rather than a genuine popular uprising. Pipes writes: “The Bolsheviks seized power in Russia because it had become available for a power seizure. Were the choice up to them, they would much rather have taken over Germany or England.” (p.65) Certainly Karl Marx would have been shocked to learn that the first Communist government in the world was instituted in Russia. 

Pipes is very anti-Communist, and is one of the more conservative historians of the Russian Revolution. In his answer to why Stalin succeeded Lenin, he writes: “I have yet to see a satisfactory Marxist explanation why history, after the death of Lenin, took a thirty-year detour by vesting what Lenin himself had called ‘unbounded power’ in a despot whom the revisionists regard as a traitor to the cause of Leninism.” (p.64) Pipes writes that Stalin was the most competent Communist politician, and thus a somewhat logical choice to succeed Lenin. Pipes also writes that “Lenin does not seem to have penetrated Stalin’s personality and noticed the mass killer lurking in his black soul.” (p.83) 

Three Whys of the Russian Revolution is a good, short introduction to some of the most interesting questions surrounding the Russian Revolution. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in Russian history.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Book Review: Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign, by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes (2017)

Cover of Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign, by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, 2017.

Journalist Jonathan Allen

Journalist Amie Parnes
In their 2017 book Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes set out to answer the same question that Hillary Clinton’s 2017 book examined: what happened? Allen and Parnes were granted almost unlimited access to Clinton’s campaign throughout the primary and general election campaigns, with the understanding that the information they were privy to would not be put in print until after the election was over. What they found was lots of dissent and turmoil within Clinton’s campaign, as rival factions of advisors battled it out to capture Clinton’s ear.

Allen and Parnes also found a candidate who could not sum up in an elevator speech why she was running. As the book opens, Clinton is about to officially announce her candidacy. However, the speech she is about to give has gone through major revisions by multiple people. Allen and Parnes write: “But Hillary still struggled with the question of whether she was running for Bill Clinton’s third term, Obama’s third term, or her own first term.”(p.13) I think the authors have an excellent point. Throughout the campaign, Clinton’s message was essentially: “The last eight years have been great. And I will do things slightly differently to make them even better!” That’s a more difficult intellectual position to articulate than Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who were both essentially shouting, “We gotta change everything!” 

Allen and Parnes also wrote that “Hillary didn’t have a vision to articulate. And no one else could give one to her.” (p.13) “Hillary had been running for president for almost a decade and still didn’t really have a rationale.” (p.18) I think that was the problem with Clinton’s candidacy. It was unclear why she was running, other than that it was finally her turnafter it had already seemed to be her turn in 2008, before Barack Obama spoiled everything. 

It’s a bit heavy-handed to say that Clinton’s campaign was “doomed,” especially since she actually won over 2.8 million more popular votes than Trump, but the authors paint a picture of a candidate and a campaign staff with no clear focus. As the authors write of Hillary, “In her view, it was up to the people she paid to find the right message for hera construction deeply at odds with the way Sanders and Trump built their campaigns around their own gut feelings about where to lead the country.” (p.138)

Campaign manager Robby Mook’s parsimonious ways come in for a lot of criticism in the book. Mook had just skeleton organizations in many states, and state campaign workers were constantly badgering the national staff for more resources. Clinton raised $1.4 billion dollars, according to The Washington Post. So why was there a need to economize at all? If $1.4 billion dollars isn’t enough money to run an effective Presidential campaign, then how much more money do you need?

Mook was also one of the staffers most enamored of the campaign’s analytics modelingwhich proved in retrospect to be extremely flawed. Bill Clinton was always pushing the campaign to reach out more to working-class white voters, but Mook’s repeated refrain was that the data didn’t match Bill’s anecdotes. Well, someone was wrong, and it wasn’t the former President. (p.237) An internal Clinton memo warned that 3-4 points should be added to Trump’s poll numbers. This savvy piece of advice might have caused Clinton’s team to reflect on their strategies, but it seems to have gone unheeded. (p.228)

Clinton’s analytics team was in favor of trying to boost turnout among the Democratic base, rather than trying to change the minds of undecided voters. This leads to another difficult issue the Clinton campaign facedmost people had probably made up their minds about Hillary Clinton back in 1992. One Clinton aide said, “The big challenge of this whole race was there were so many voters who were ungettable.” (p.397)

I think Clinton’s team took it for granted that they would get every single vote that Obama got in 2012, plus lots more votes from women. That obviously proved to be a huge mistake, as the so-called “Blue Wall” did not hold. According to exit polling, Clinton got 54% of the votes of all women, down from Obama’s 55% in 2012. In addition, Clinton’s numbers were down compared to Obama’s in 2012 among African Americans, Asians, and Hispanic/Latinos. Although the authors don’t touch upon this in the book, third parties may have played a role in Clinton’s defeat as well. Nationally, 5.9 million people voted for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein. That's 4.3% of the vote. Clinton lost Michigan by 11,000 votes. Gary Johnson got 172,000 votes in Michigan, and Jill Stein got 50,000. In a race with so many close states, those third parties may have made a difference. 

While it’s impossible to pin the reason for Clinton’s loss on any one factor, Shattered does an excellent job of going behind the scenes in Clinton’s campaign to reveal the problems they faced. If you’re interested in politics, it’s a fascinating, if frustrating, read.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Book Review: Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose, by Joe Biden (2017)

Book cover of Promise Me, Dad, by Joe Biden, 2017.

Joe Biden, Vice President from 2009-2017.
In December, I heard former Vice President Joe Biden speak at the Orpheum Theatre about his new book, Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose. It was an emotional evening, as Biden spoke about his son Beau’s death from brain cancer. That’s the main subject of Promise Me, Dad, but readers also get glimpses into Biden’s duties as Vice President, and Biden’s thinking as he ultimately decided not to pursue the Democratic nomination for President in 2016.

Promise Me, Dad is that very rare thingan amazingly honest book written by a national politician. But then I think Joe Biden is an amazingly honest person. What you see is what you get with him. Promise Me, Dad is also a very moving book. Biden clearly had a very close relationship with Beau, and I can’t imagine how hard it was for him to watch Beau slowly be weakened by an awful disease. Even though there was little hope, Beau Biden signed up for every experimental treatment that was out there, hoping for a miracle. 

The book also sheds light on Biden’s relationship with Barack Obama, and it becomes clear that they developed a very close friendship. As Biden said about the memes that celebrate his friendship with Obama, “They’re basically all true.” However, Biden originally told Obama no when Obama wanted to vet him for Vice President. When Biden was very close to saying yes to the Vice Presidency, he said to Obama, “I want to be the last guy in the room on every major decision. You’re President. I’m not. I get it. But if it’s my experience you’re looking for, I want to be the last guy to make the case.” (p.64) 

One of the best anecdotes in the book is Biden’s meeting with Vladimir Putin. This was during the period when Putin was Prime Minister, rather than President, due to term limits. As they were meeting in Putin’s office, Biden turned around and was suddenly face to face with Putin. He said, “Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes. I don’t think you have a soul.” Putin replied, “We understand each other.” (p.95) 

A key passage in Promise Me, Dad, is when Biden describes his own political philosophy: “I believe all politics is personal, because at bottom, politics depends on trust, and unless you can establish a personal relationship, it’s awfully hard to build trust.” (p.129) Biden demonstrates that again and again in the book, as he details his relationships with foreign leaders, and his attempts to build trust with them. 

Will Joe Biden run for President in 2020? He’ll be 77 years old in 2020, and 78 years old on January 20, 2021that’s older than Ronald Reagan was when he left office in 1989. But you never know, and as Promise Me, Dad shows, Joe Biden is a man who just keeps going when he’s facing adversity.