Friday, November 27, 2015

Book Review: Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, by Tom Wolfe (1976)

Tom Wolfe, resplendent in his white suit, on the cover of a re-issue of his 1976 essay collection, Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine.

Tom Wolfe’s 1976 book Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, is a collection of short essays of the sort that had made Wolfe famous a decade earlier. The contents are quite varied, ranging from the illustrated story “The Man Who Always Peaked Too Soon,” to Wolfe’s first venture into fiction, the short story “The Commercial,” and including one of Wolfe’s classic capturing-the-zeitgeist pieces, “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening.” Mauve Gloves & Madmen features excellent writing from Wolfe, although the book is somewhat uneven.

The title piece is an odd, fictional fragment of an author’s reckoning of his personal finances. The seemingly inscrutable title is clarified, as the author looks through his receipts for a recent dinner party, which was catered by Mauve Gloves & Madmen, and the flowers to dress up the apartment for the party came from the florist Clutter & Vine. Is this piece, about a successful author who needs still more money to retain his current status, meant to be a self-portrait of Wolfe? I didn’t really think so, but then I came across a 1981 interview of Wolfe by Joshua Gilder, which was reprinted in the book Conversations with Tom Wolfe.  During the interview, Wolfe talks about the period where he wrote The Right Stuff, and he says “I even got to the point where I wore clothes in which I couldn’t go out into the street. Such as khaki pants; you know, I think it’s demeaning. I can’t go out into the street in khaki pants or jeans.” Gilder then asks the question most of us would ask next, “You own a pair of jeans?” Wolfe answers, “I have one pair of ‘Double X’ Levis, which I bought in La Porte, Texas, in a place that I was told was an authentic Texas cowboy store, just before I started working on The Right Stuff. I’ve had them on, but I’ve never worn them below the third floor. So I put on a pair of khaki pants and a turtleneck sweater, a heavy sweater.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.161)

This is the same outfit the author in “Mauve Gloves & Madmen” wears! “Meeting his sideburns at mid-jowl is the neck of his turtleneck sweater, an authentic Navy turtleneck, and the sweater tucks into his Levi’s, which are the authentic Original XX Levi’s, the original straight stovepipes made for wearing over boots. He got them in a bona fide cowhand’s store in La Porte, Texas, during his trip to Houston to be the keynote speaker in a lecture series on ‘The American Dream: Myth and Reality.’ No small part of the latter was a fee of two thousand dollars plus expenses. This outfit, the Navy turtleneck and the double-X Levi’s, means work & discipline. Discipline! as he says to himself every day. When he puts on these clothes, it means that he intends to write, and do nothing else, for at least four hours.” (Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, p.2-3) 

Ironically, I had first thought that this description of the way the author was dressed was one reason why the piece wasn’t meant to be a self-portrait of Wolfe. That can’t be Tom Wolfe! Tom Wolfe doesn’t wear jeans!

“The Man Who Always Peaked Too Soon” is an illustrated story. Wolfe is a good illustrator, but I don’t really care for his style. It reminds me too much of the cluttered grotesquerie of Ronald Searle. 

“The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie,” about fighter pilots in Vietnam, is kind of a tune-up for Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff. Pilots! The heroes of the skies! Defying death with every trip! They have ice water running through their veins! Was Tom Wolfe actually up there on the flight deck with them? In his white suit? What if it got dirty, full of oil and grease stains? Skkkkreeeowww! A fighter jet roars past! You can feel it, actually FEEL the vibrations in your bones! Tom Wolfe gets INSIDE the heads of these fighter pilots…knowing how they think…you are there for every minute of their flight over North Vietnam…scanning the skies…looking out for Charlie, or the SAMs, the surface to air missiles…trying to stay above the flak…lookout, SAM at one o’clock!!! And then it comes over the radio, “No more parodies of Tom Wolfe’s writing style!” WHAT??? How can I review this book without resorting to multiple exclamation points!!! It’s NOT possible…okay, fine…back to boring normal review writing…

Wolfe even comes close to coining the phrase “the right stuff” in this piece:

“Within the fraternity of men who did this sort of thing day in and day out-within the flying fraternity, that is-mankind appeared to be sheerly divided into those who have it and those who don’t-although just what it was…was never explained.” (p.45) 

“The Truest Sport” is a superb piece of writing. Originally published in Esquire in October, 1975, it is a favorite of Wolfe’s, as he once called it, “one of the magazine pieces I’m proudest of.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.162) 

“The Commercial: A Short Story,” is an excellent piece of fiction, told from the point of view of an African-American baseball player filming a television commercial. Wolfe is able to capture the voice of someone totally unlike himself. However, Wolfe was a good enough baseball player to earn a tryout with the New York Giants as a pitcher in 1953. Wolfe once said in a 1976 interview, “This country really is made up of half failed athletes and half women. That’s what America is.” In the same interview, Wolfe described his pitching talents, “I had a great assortment of junk screwballs, sliders, and even a forkball. I lacked a fastball, though. It was my tragic flaw.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.99) 

“The Intelligent Co-Ed’s Guide to America” is a good short piece about the nature of the intellectual class in America to be depressed and always think that the rise of fascism is imminent. 

“The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening” is the most famous piece in the book. (The book really should have been called The Me Decade, which would have been a much better title than the too verbose and cumbersome Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine.) It’s a fascinating look at America at the midpoint of the 1970’s. Wolfe has clearly been thinking about the issues in the essay a lot, and many different strands of thought come together in this piece of writing. Wolfe writes that unrivaled prosperity in the post-World War II United States has led to people having all of this time on their hands to discover their “true selves.” I would agree with this thesis. It’s only when people’s basic human needs are being met that they have the time to, say, undergo psychoanalysis. 

“The Perfect Crime” discusses how hostage taking has become the ultimate crime of the 1970’s. Again, this fits in with Wolfe’s idea that the 1970’s have become a narcissistic decade. A hostage situation puts all of the focus and attention on the hostage taker, which is exactly what they wanted. It’s all about ME.

“Pornoviolence” described media sensationalism about sex and violence. It starts at a conference for stringers for The National Enquirer, and then Wolfe broadens his lens to look at TV Westerns, James Bond, and Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel In Cold Blood. 

“The Boiler Room and the Computer” is a short essay about how Freud was wrong about how our bodies operate. Probably the least interesting piece in the book.

“Funky Chic” demonstrates how in tune Wolfe is to people’s clothes, and what our clothes tell other people about our statuses. We are in John O’Hara territory of describing social minutiae here, as Wolfe writes about how twenty years ago, “Five out of every seven Yale undergraduates could tell whether the button-down Oxford cloth shirt you had on was from Fenn-Feinstein, J. Press, or Brooks Brothers from a single glance at your shirt front; Fenn-Feinstein: plain breast pocket; J. Press: breast pocket with buttoned flap; Brooks Brothers: no breast pocket at all.” (p.181) You might find that to be too much information, or you might find it fascinating. 

“Honks and Wonks” details east coast regional accents, and what status they denote to other people. It’s moderately interesting. But I have to quibble with Wolfe’s assertion that “Bobby Kennedy, like his brother John, had great difficulty in conventional oratory from a rostrum.” (p.205) So the President who delivered one of the greatest inaugural addresses ever wasn’t a good speaker? That’s just false. Bobby Kennedy was also a great speaker. If you need evidence, just listen to his “ripple of hope” speech, delivered in South Africa in 1966, or his moving words, delivered extemporaneously, the night that Martin Luther King was assassinated. 

“The Street Fighters” is a short piece, a sort of easy dessert to end the book, about how quick people in New York City are to insult each other. 

The second half of Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine is not quite as good as the first half, as some of those later essays are a little inconsequential. But overall, the book is an excellent example of Wolfe’s sharp eye for detail as he chronicled the “me decade” of the 1970’s.

1 comment:

Steve Sailer said...

Another inspiration for the clothes-horse writer in "Mauve Gloves and Madmen" was likely Wolfe's peer/rival Gay Talese. The shoes seem extremely Talese-like. Here's Talese reminiscing about his father and mother, both of whom were in the clothes business:

I would imagine that "Mauve Gloves and Madmen" was one point of origin for "Bonfire of the Vanities," which originally was about a writer.

In the mid-1980s, Wolfe became dissatisfied with his draft, feeling that a writer writing about a writer was lazy, and rewrote it about a bond trader, which was much more timely when it came out in 1987.