Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Book Review: The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, by Tom Wolfe (1965)

The original hardcover dust jacket of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, by Tom Wolfe, 1965.

A young Tom Wolfe in New York City.
Tom Wolfe burst onto the literary scene in 1965 with the publication of his first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a collection of articles that he had written for Esquire and New York magazine, the Sunday supplement of the New York Herald Tribune. Surprisingly for a book of collected non-fiction, it sold extremely well, and helped shine a light on the burgeoning genre soon to be called “New Journalism.” Wolfe and other “New Journalists” of the 1960’s like Gay Talese were using some of the techniques of fiction to write non-fiction. Wolfe told stories in an interesting way, and these new techniques were paired with a flamboyant, sometimes over the top writing style, full of ellipses, exclamation points, and sound effects. Wolfe defended his unique writing style in a 1966 interview, saying, “People only write in careful flowing sentences; they don’t think that way and they don’t talk that way.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.12) Over the course of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, you can see Wolfe’s style begin to emerge. The twenty-two pieces in the book were written over a period of just fifteen months, a time when Tom Wolfe went from obscure newspaper reporter to the capturer of the American zeitgeist of the 1960’s. 

I’ve been a little obsessed with Tom Wolfe over the last few months. He’s an author I’ve always known about and been aware of, but until this year I had never actually read any of his work. I figured I needed to rectify that, so I dug out my copy of Smiling Through the Apocalypse, Esquire magazine’s history of the 1960’s, which included Wolfe’s articles, “The Last American Hero,” “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” and “Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t Hear You! Too Noisy) Las Vegas!!!!” After reading those three articles I was hooked and I knew I had to read more of Wolfe. The first book of Wolfe’s I read was his critique of modernist architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, and next I read his 1976 essay collection Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine. I’ve also written a short parody of Wolfe’s writing style that imagines if Tom Wolfe was covering Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and I wrote a short piece about Michael Lewis’ recent profile of Wolfe in Vanity Fair. 

Here’s a more in-depth look at the articles in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby:

“Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t Hear You! Too Noisy) Las Vegas!!!!” The first article in the book, this is a classic look at Las Vegas, which at the time Wolfe wrote this article was beginning to emerge as an entertainment mecca out in the vast Nevada desert. The Las Vegas that Wolfe describes in 1964 has only gotten bigger, noisier, and more complete in its attempts to win your attention. Two of my favorite quotes from the article are:

“Men play the slots too, of course, but one of the indelible images of Las Vegas is that of the old babes at the row upon row of slot machines. There they are at six o’clock Sunday morning no less than at three o’clock Tuesday afternoon.” (p.6)

“Muzak pervades Las Vegas from the time you walk into the airport upon landing to the last time you leave the casinos. It is piped out to the swimming pool. It is in the drugstores. It is as if there were a communal fear that someone, somewhere in Las Vegas, was going to be left with a totally vacant minute on his hands.” (p.7) 

Both of these quotes still very accurately describe the Las Vegas of the present.

 “Clean Fun at Riverhead” is about the birth of the demolition derby, and fits in well with Wolfe’s other longer, and much more famous pieces about the burgeoning car culture of the 1960’s, the title piece and “The Last American Hero,” about NASCAR driver Junior Johnson. I was fascinated by demolition derbies when I was a young boy, so I found this piece really interesting.

“The Fifth Beatle,” is a profile of New York City DJ Murray the K, who hung out with the Beatles when they first came to America, and was probably the first person to call himself “The Fifth Beatle.” It’s an interesting piece about the early days of Beatlemania. Fortunately, Wolfe doesn’t make any editorial comments about the Beatles being a flash in the pan that would seem embarrassing now.

“The Peppermint Lounge Revisited” is a study of the types of people who were attending the New York City nightclub, which popularized the twist dance craze of the early 1960’s. It shows Wolfe’s keen eye for social details.

“The First Tycoon of Teen,” profiles record producer and songwriter, and future convicted murderer, Phil Spector. Dating from late 1964-early 1965, just after the release of his masterpiece “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” it finds Spector at the peak of his fame and influence. Wolfe does erroneously state that Spector worked with Elvis Presley. The key quote from the article is on page 65. Spector is talking about a man who pushed him at a nightclub and says, “I mean, I’ve studied karate for years. I could literally kill a guy like that. You know?” Simmer down, Phil.

“The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” now, this is the STORY! The one that launched Wolfe into the stars, made him THE writer of his time! Although now when you read it, it’s not really high style Tom Wolfe yet. You might read it and wonder, where are the ellipses…where are the exclamation points, where’s all the Tom Wolfe-isms??? All of those will come later. But the piece is written in a witty, conversational style that was a breakthrough in Wolfe’s writing. “Kandy-Kolored” sets up a general pattern that some of Wolfe’s most famous articles will follow, as Wolfe gives you the inside scoop on some heretofore uncharted subculture that you didn’t even know existed. “Kandy-Kolored” examines the subculture of car customizing, which was becoming very popular among teenagers in the early 1960’s. 

“Kandy-Kolored” was Wolfe’s first magazine piece, written for Esquire, and Wolfe had a rather bad case of writer’s block as he was trying to finish the article, so his editor, Byron Dobell, suggested that Wolfe just type up his notes and someone else would work them into an article. Wolfe pulled an all-nighter, pounding out 49 pages on his typewriter, and when he showed the notes to Dobell, he simply struck “Dear Byron” and ran Wolfe’s notes as the article. Wolfe relates this story in the introduction to the book, and I didn’t realize that the story around the creation of the story is as old as the story itself. Wolfe’s style in “Kandy-Kolored” is conversational; as he throws in asides that he probably figured would be edited out, but those asides give the piece its style. After years as a newspaper reporter, Wolfe had finally found his voice. 

“The Marvelous Mouth,” is a profile of Cassius Clay, written when he was in training to fight Sonny Liston. Clay’s upset victory over Liston made him the heavyweight champion. Shortly afterwards, Clay announced that he had converted to the Nation of Islam and was changing his name to Muhammad Ali. “The Marvelous Mouth” was written after “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” but was published in Esquire in October of 1963, a month before “Kandy-Kolored” appeared. In a 1966 interview with Elaine Dundy for Vogue magazine, titled “Tom Wolfe…But Exactly, Yes!” Wolfe said, “I missed the important story about him: that he was getting involved with the Black Muslims at the time I was seeing him.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.11)

“The Last American Hero,” is another profile of an athlete, NASCAR driver Junior Johnson. This is the story where Wolfe’s high style is on full, virtuosic display. “The Last American Hero” is full of onomatopoeia, ellipses, exclamation points, and digressions about various topics. Once again, Wolfe takes the reader into subcultures, moonshining and NASCAR racing, that were not widely known outside of the American South in 1965. “The Last American Hero” is one of Wolfe’s landmark articles. It popularized the phrase “good old boy,” and was adapted into a 1973 movie starring Jeff Bridges.

Wolfe tried his hand at the movie star profile in 1963’s “Loverboy of the Bourgeoisie,” about Cary Grant. Wolfe is sharp in his writing about Grant, who comes off as quite naturally funny and likable. But Wolfe is totally off the mark when writing about movies in general. Wolfe contrasts Grant to younger male movie stars, and he writes, “One has only to list the male stars of the past 20 years-Brando, Rock Hudson, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, Victor Mature, William Holden, Frank Sinatra-and already the mind is overpowered by an awesome montage of swung fists, bent teeth, curled lips, popping neck veins, and gurglings.” (p.176) What? What is Wolfe talking about? Brando’s acting style was decidedly different from all of the other actors Wolfe lists, so putting him together with the other actors doesn’t make a lot of sense. Wolfe seems to be criticizing Brando’s acting style, as critics charged that Brando was all Method mumblings and affectations. But does Wolfe seriously think that Burt Lancaster, William Holden and Rock Hudson were all “popping neck veins and gurglings”? Then he hasn’t seen very many of their movies. 

Wolfe goes on to criticize the actresses of the 1950’s, writing, “As often as not the Brandoesque hero’s love partner is some thyroid hoyden, as portrayed by Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Gina Lollobrigida or, more recently, Sue Lyon or Tuesday Weld. The upshot has been the era of Rake-a-Cheek Romance on the screen. Man meets woman. She rakes his cheek with her fingernails. He belts her in the chops. They fall in a wallow of passion.” (p.176) Again, what is Wolfe talking about? What movies was he watching? Wolfe completely misrepresents the actresses of the 1950’s. Bardot, Monroe, Mansfield and Lollobrigida were all bombshells who were huge sex symbols, but they were not at all typical of the Hollywood actresses of that time. The male actors that Wolfe mentions weren’t often starring with these bombshells; they were making movies opposite actresses like Deborah Kerr, Eva Marie Saint, Jean Simmons, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Barbara Stanwyck, and Doris Day. Bardot never made any significant American movies, and Jayne Mansfield was basically a poor man’s Marilyn Monroe who made B-grade movies. (Okay, so Mansfield did star with Cary Grant in 1957’s Kiss Them For Me, but the closest she got to A-lister Rock Hudson was starring in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, which used Hudson’s name and Tab Hunter’s to jokingly create the name of the character that Tony Randall played.) 

Wolfe then goes on to lump Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Rock Hudson together, which makes no sense at all. Brando and Dean’s acting styles were completely different from Rock Hudson’s, and they were nothing alike as screen types. 

Wolfe also discusses Ingrid Bergman in the context of the American middle class, writing, “There is no telling how many millions of American women of the new era know exactly what Ingrid Bergman meant when she said she loved playing opposite Cary Grant in Notorious: ‘I didn’t have to take my shoes off in the love scenes.’” (p.176-7) What Wolfe seems to be saying is that Bergman loved her shoes so much that she was very glad she could keep them on all the time. What I think Ingrid Bergman was actually saying is that she was happy she was playing opposite a tall leading man, as the 5’9” Bergman wouldn’t tower over the 6’2” Grant, even in heels. 

 Former Confidential magazine publisher Robert Harrison is profiled next in “Purveyor of the Public Life.” It’s an interesting look at a man who was down on his heels at the time Wolfe profiled him.

If you are really going to appreciate Tom Wolfe, I mean, really understand him, and understand where these early pieces are coming from, the one word you need to know, simply must know, is arteriosclerotic. Arteriosclerotic? Yes, that very word! It means a hardening of the arteries, and Wolfe uses it in piece after piece in this book to describe people who are old, square, rigid. Wolfe explained his use of “arteriosclerotic” in his 1966 Vogue magazine interview: “Repeating words means that they have become for me inseparable from the meaning I want. Eventually I get over them. Arteriosclerotic-I was obsessed for a while with people’s blood vessels getting stiffer and stiffer without them knowing it.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.11)

“The Girl of the Year” profiles socialite/model Baby Jane Holzer, who was a New York media celebrity from 1963-1965. Holzer hung out a lot with Andy Warhol and the Rolling Stones, and “The Girl of the Year” follows her to a Rolling Stones concert, and to her birthday party. “The Girl of the Year” is a look at fleeting fame, and how some people become famous for little or no reason at all.

A short illustrated section called “A Metropolitan Sketchbook” is next. It’s moderately intriguing, but I enjoy Wolfe’s writing more than his drawing.

“The Saturday Route” follows rich New Yorkers making the rounds of the art galleries on the Upper East Side.

“The Luther of Columbus Circle” profiles millionaire Huntington Hartford, who hated abstract art and opened the Gallery of Modern Art in 1964. This piece would have been more interesting if Wolfe would have been able to interview Hartford.

“The New Art Gallery Society” details a lavish party for the 1964 expansion of the Museum of Modern Art. 

“The Secret Vice” is all about buttons on men’s suits. Again, Wolfe is bringing you information on something you didn’t even know you cared about! It’s the most John O’Hara-like piece in the book, as Wolfe points out tiny details that are subtle markers of status. While in the piece Wolfe is writing about his friend Ross’ discovery of suits with real buttons, he later revealed that it was in fact his own discovery he was chronicling. In his introductory essay to the 1973 collection The New Journalism, Wolfe wrote: “Sometimes I would put myself into the story and make sport of me. I would be ‘the man in the brown Borsalino hat,’ a large fuzzy Italian fedora I wore at the time, or ‘the man in the Big Lunch tie.’ I would write about myself in the third person, usually as a puzzled onlooker or someone who was in the way, which was often the case. Once I even began a story about a vice I was also prone to, tailor-made clothes, as if someone else were the hectoring narrator…treating me in a flippant manner: ‘Real buttonholes. That’s it! A man can take his thumb and forefinger and unbutton his sleeve at the wrist because this kind of suit has real buttonholes there. Tom, boy, it’s terrible. Once you know about it, you start seeing it. All the time!’…and so on…anything to avoid coming on like the usual non-fiction narrator, with a hush in my voice, like a radio announcer at a tennis match.” (The New Journalism, by Tom Wolfe, p.17)
“The Nanny Mafia” is about the influence that nannies have over the rich families they work for. Again, Wolfe is delineating careful gradations of status. In his 1966 interview with Vogue magazine, Wolfe said, “Perfect journalism would deal constantly with one subject: status. And every article written would be devoted to discovering and defining some new status.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.9) 

“Putting Daddy On” was, for me, one of the least interesting pieces in the book. It’s about a father tracking down his son who has dropped out of college to live in the East Village. The father drags Wolfe along for the ride.

 “A Sunday Kind of Love” describes the thrill of lazy Sundays in New York. It’s a good little piece.

“The Woman Who Has Everything” is about the struggles of a young divorcee trying to find love in Manhattan. It’s well done, and it shows what a good reporter Wolfe is. Elaine Dundy quizzed Wolfe about his reporting habits in her 1966 interview of him, asking him, “Doesn’t the notebook put people off? Not at all, he claims, as we are all victims of what he calls ‘information compulsion’-i.e., the desire to unload whatever is currently on our minds.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.7-8) 

“The Voices of Village Square” is a short piece about female prisoners yelling out the windows of the Women’s House of Detention, which overlooked Village Square, in the heart of Greenwich Village.

“Why Doormen Hate Volkswagens” is an interesting piece about a doorman who parks cars for his tenants.

“The Big League Complex” is right up Wolfe’s alley, as it is all about status in New York City. It’s a good piece to end the book with.

If you want to know where Tom Wolfe’s exciting writing style came from, go for a ride in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.

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