Book Reviews

‘Hooking Up’

Tom Wolfe

Farrar Straus ‘ Giroux

293 pages


‘My Three Stooges,’ the highlight essay of this new collection by Tom Wolfe, is simultaneously an act of literary revenge, a tantrum and a persuasive argument about what the modern American novel should be.

It is vicious.

The targets of Wolfe’s withering attack are none other than John Updike, Norman Mailer and John Irving, a prestigious trio, each of whom had the temerity to pan as insufficiently literary Wolfe’s bestselling 1998 novel, ‘A Man in Full.’

Updike concluded in The New Yorker that ‘A Man in Full’ ‘still amounts to entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form.’

Mailer, in ‘The New York Review of Books,’ compared reading it to making love to a 300-pound woman: ‘Once she gets on top, it’s all over. Fall in love or be asphyxiated.’

Irving: ‘It’s like reading a bad newspaper. . . . It makes you wince.’

Now it’s Wolfe’s turn.

Wolfe not only argues that these titans have ‘wasted their careers’ by retreating into effete literary cocoons but also notes their sometimes relatively paltry sales figures. And then he drops in the physical infirmities of his aging rivals: that Updike has complained of an aging bladder and that Mailer appears in newspaper photos with two canes, ‘one for each rusted out hip.’

How did ‘the two old codgers,’ Wolfe wonders, find the strength to denounce ‘A Man in Full’ in ‘those exhausted carcasses of theirs?’

‘My Three Stooges,’ the only previously unpublished piece in this collection, will be remembered as more than a tantrum, however. The argument Wolfe advances about the American novel, which he has launched before, is engaging and plausible.

Wolfe calls for writers to abandon the stale material of their selves and academic fashions to embrace through journalistic observation and research the rich, raucous nature of the 21st Century.

He invokes the work of Steinbeck, Dickens and Zola as proof of the greatness of novels wrung from their writers’ absorption in the wider world around them. He also praises the work — and popularity — of American moviemakers who are ‘excited by the lurid carnival of American life.’

‘The American novel is dying, not of obsolescence, but of anorexia,’ Wolfe writes. ‘It needs . . . food. It needs novelists with huge appetites and mighty unslaked thirsts for . . . ‘America’ . . . as she is right now. It needs novelists with the energy and verve to approach America the way her moviemakers do, which is to say, with a ravenous curiosity and an urge to go out among her 270 million souls and talk to them and look them in the eye.’

Wolfe, as usual, overstates his case, and inexplicably relies to some extent on sales figures to gauge the worthiness of a novel. But his argument is impossible to ignore.

Other pieces in the collection, mostly journalistic essays, aim for more predictable Wolfe-ian targets: ‘In the Land of the Rococo Marxists’ skewers academic moral indignation; ‘Lost in the Whichy Thickets’ mocks the William Shawn-era at The New Yorker; ‘The Invisible Artist’ ridicules the contemporary art world. With these familiar foils in play, Wolfe delivers with the bite that his fans have come to expect.