Friday, June 24, 2016

Book Review: In Our Time by Tom Wolfe (1980)

The cover of the 1999 paperback reissue of In Our Time, by Tom Wolfe, originally published in 1980. As usual, it's photographed on my Tom Wolfe bookshelf. Photo by Mark C. Taylor.

Tom Wolfe.
In Our Time is surely the most inessential Tom Wolfe book. Released in 1980, it’s a grab bag of very short articles and drawings, some of which had already been released in other Wolfe collections. To be cynical, one might think that it was issued purely as a cash grab, riding closely on the coattails of Wolfe’s hugely successful 1979 bestseller The Right Stuff. 

The title comes from a column that Wolfe had in Harper’s magazine, which featured drawings by Wolfe and text to accompany them. These are collected in chapter three of the book. I like Wolfe’s drawings in this section the best, as I find them more nuanced than his earlier work. 

The first chapter, “Stiffened Giblets,” is the most substantive part of In Our Time, and is very good as a short social history of the 1970’s and why they were such a transformative decade. Wolfe writes about co-ed dorms, marijuana, divorces, and other trends of the ten-year stretch that he so smartly called “the Me Decade.”

The second chapter, entitled “Entr’actes and Canapes” reads like memos Wolfe wrote to himself of ideas for articles that he never found the time or energy to write. As such it’s frustrating at best, as you get little glimpses of Wolfe’s sharp eye, but not the satisfaction that comes from reading his longer pieces. My favorite nugget from this section is Wolfe’s comment about the 1974 movie of The Great Gatsby, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow: “Nevertheless, Gatsby, followed as it was nearly four years later by Saturday Night Fever, ruined one of the main joys of my life: wearing white suits.” (In Our Time, p.19) 

After the “In Our Time” chapter, the rest of the book is filled with Wolfe’s drawings, and precious little of his writing. In these sections of the book, there are drawings recycled from The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Pump House Gang, Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, and The Painted Word. This recycling begs the question, what’s the purpose of In Our Time? It might have made more sense if it were just a collection of Wolfe’s drawings, rather than a bunch of drawings plus a couple of half-baked chapters. It’s just so obviously a literary smorgasbord of whatever he had lying around, plus some stuff that had already been published. Maybe Wolfe cobbled together In Our Time as a diversion while he was planning his first novel. 

In Our Time is the one book of Wolfe’s that isn’t even mentioned at all in Conversations with Tom Wolfe. No one ever asked Tom Wolfe about it! No one had any questions about it! It’s surely Wolfe’s most obscure book, and it’s one for the die-hard fans only.

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