Saturday, January 16, 2016

Book Review: Conversations with Tom Wolfe, edited by Dorothy Scura (1990)

Conversations with Tom Wolfe, 1990. This is my Tom Wolfe book shelf, which is rapidly growing. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

Tom Wolfe, looking dapper as always at his desk, 2012.
I’ve been on a Tom Wolfe kick lately, so after finishing The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, (reviewed here) I decided to read Conversations with Tom Wolfe, part of the University Press of Mississippi’s excellent series that compiles interviews with well-known authors. Conversations with Tom Wolfe, edited by Dorothy Scura, is an excellent look at one of the most important American writers of the last fifty years. The only drawback to Conversations is that the book is now rather dated, since it came out in 1990, and therefore only covers the first half of Wolfe’s writing career. That caveat aside, Conversations is a great book if you’re interested in learning more about the ideas behind some of Tom Wolfe’s books.

The second article in the book is a very good 1966 Vogue interview by Elaine Dundy, the ex-wife of drama critic Kenneth Tynan, and an accomplished writer herself. I quoted that piece several times in my recent review of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. 

Another interesting interview is the transcript of a 1975 episode of William F. Buckley’s television show Firing Line, during which Wolfe discusses his book about the New York City art scene, The Painted Word. (If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can watch nearly every episode of Firing Line.) Watching the episode of Firing Line is even more entertaining than reading the transcript, and worth it just to hear the dulcet tones of William F. Buckley as he caressingly pronounces the title of Wolfe’s book, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” 

Of course, most of the articles and interviews make note at some point of Wolfe’s clothes, as his familiar white suit became his trademark look. In a 1980 interview, Wolfe used his clothes to make a larger point about his writing. Wolfe said, “In the beginning of my magazine-writing career, I used to feel it was very important to try to fit in…and it almost always backfired…I realized that not only did I not fit in, but because I thought I was fitting in in some way, I was afraid to ask such very basic questions as, what’s the difference between an eight-gauge and seven-gauge tire, or, what’s a gum ball, because if you’re supposed to be hip, you can’t ask those questions. I also found that people really don’t want you to try to fit in. They’d much rather fill you in.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.148-9) In a 1981 interview, Wolfe said, “You just discover after a while that people like to be asked questions they know the answers to.” (p.165) That’s terrific advice for anyone trying to have a conversation with another person. 

Throughout much of the time period that Conversations with Tom Wolfe focuses on, Wolfe was contemplating making the jump from non-fiction to fiction. Wolfe had long argued that the non-fiction of the 1960’s and 1970’s was capturing the zeitgeist in a way that the fiction of those decades was not. Wolfe was also an adherent of naturalism in fiction, and he decided that he should finally put his theories about fiction to the test with his first novel. Wolfe wanted to write a book that captured the feel of New York City, and he toyed with calling it Vanity Fair. Wolfe’s first novel was eventually published in 1987 as The Bonfire of the Vanities, and it became a huge bestseller. According to Harper’s magazine, Wolfe used 2,343 exclamation points in The Bonfire of the Vanities! (p.255) 
One of the best pieces in Conversations with Tom Wolfe is the long 1987 Vanity Fair article by Toby Thompson, “The Evolution of Dandy Tom.” Thompson is one of the only authors who used Wolfe’s reportorial technique of having different scenes in the piece, and he also interviewed several people close to Wolfe, which allows the reader to get a more personal look at Wolfe.

There are a couple of humorous anecdotes that Wolfe relates about the “other” Tom Wolfe, the novelist Thomas Wolfe, author of Look Homeward, Angel, and You Can’t Go Home Again. Wolfe said, “I was always convinced, incidentally, that Thomas Wolfe was kin to me, and it was very hard for my parents to convince me that he wasn’t.” (p.169) In another interview, Wolfe spoke of his father, Thomas Wolfe Sr., and he said, “I always thought of him as a writer. He kept the novels of Thomas Wolfe on his bookshelf, and for years I thought he’d written them.” (p.201) 

Throughout Conversations with Tom Wolfe there are many examples of Wolfe’s sharp observations on American society and life. Speaking about Watergate in a 1988 interview with Bill Moyers, Wolfe said, “This is a very stable country politically, very stable. Richard Nixon thrown out of office, forced out. Not only was there no junta rising from the military to take over the situation, there wasn’t even one demonstration by Republicans or anybody else. In fact, as far as I know, there wasn’t even a drunk Republican who threw a brick through a saloon window.” (p.248) 

If you’re interested in learning more about Tom Wolfe, Conversations with Tom Wolfe is a great place to start.

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