November 1, 2004


Wolfe's World (CHARLES McGRATH, 10/31/04, NY Times Magazine)

[I]f Wolfe's version of himself seems familiar and repetitious, it's in part because, unlike so many American writers, he didn't so much develop or evolve as discover himself practically full blown as an old-fashioned reporter and observer. The city room really was his crucible, as it was for novelists like Stephen Crane and John O'Hara. And he found there not just a subject but a whole aesthetic, which he has stuck with faithfully -- some would say stubbornly -- ever since. It's a profoundly realistic, representational aesthetic based on observable detail, reportable facts.

The difference between Wolfe the nonfiction writer and Wolfe the novelist is almost negligible. Both of them rely on the same formula: a narrative constructed in scenes; copious use of dialogue, noting the speaker's dialect and inflections; points of view that are deep inside a character's head; and a cataloguer's careful attention to things like houses, furniture, cars and clothing. Clothing especially. No one else has written as lovingly and as knowledgeably as Wolfe, the great pornographer of haberdashery, about greatcoats, riding macs, pinstripes and chalk stripes, sharkskin and hard worsteds, lapel rolls, pocket squares, Charvet neckties, cap-toed shoes from Lobb, wingtips from New & Lingwood.

Wolfe says he believes in something he calls ''the matrix,'' and his matrix has remained remarkably consistent over the years, as have so many of his ideas. The matrix, in the Wolfean scheme of things, is a grand unifying explanation, a theory of life. ''You have to have a theory,'' he explained last summer, ''and it doesn't really matter what the theory is -- it will force you to make connections.'' (One character in Wolfe's new novel belongs to a group called the Millennial Mutants, who dream of coming up with a new matrix, which is a key to membership in the aristo-meritocracy.) ''For much of Western history, the theory of life is Christianity, but then Marxism comes along and that will work, or Darwinism or Freudianism.''

Nicely put.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 1, 2004 10:42 AM

It's not a bad profile of Wolfe, but man, that is some photo they used--which is on every page of the online article. I actually had to read the printer version to get through it.

I wonder what Wolfe thinks about that shot.

Posted by: Ed Driscoll at November 1, 2004 12:50 PM

For a man kept locked up in the attic by his family, it is amazing the meta-headlines Orrin comes up with. Heck, for anyone.

Posted by: Eugene S. at November 1, 2004 1:00 PM

Eugene, I think he stays in there of his own accord.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at November 1, 2004 1:55 PM

The first ten paragraphs of the article are the worst writing I've ever seen in the NYT and that's saying something. (Yes, I know Mr. McGrath thought he could have some fun satirizing a satirist.)

Combined with the newspaper's current article on crocodiles in which the writer inserts herself in the most grating manner every couple of sentences, and you have to wonder if instead of the charity of a "job", these miserable unemployables would benefit more from learning an honest trade.

Posted by: Eugene S. at November 1, 2004 2:19 PM


Part of the problem is that whenever anybody writes an article on Wolfe, they almost always choose to write in the same zingy-New Journalism style that Wolfe pioneered. And it never works: like this piece, they invariably fall on their face in the process.

Posted by: Ed Driscoll at November 1, 2004 3:04 PM

Whoops--should have said "the same zingy-New Journalism style that Wolfe helped to pioneer." He's always been quick to credit Breslin, Capote, Mailer, Talese and others in helping to shape the style. (And yeah, I know that Breslin and Mailer lost their chops as they went hopelessly further and further to the left.)

Posted by: Ed Driscoll at November 1, 2004 3:08 PM

Back when Wolfe was still in the newspaper business, the Herald Tribune was always the "writer's paper" of the big NYC broadsheets, while the Times was the "editor's paper".

Obviously, if you have good reporters who can turn a phrase and paint a story, the former is better, while there are a lot of reporters who deperately are in need of an editor's hand, no matter how absolutely faboulous they think their copy is. Unfortunately, the Times over the past 20 years has had editors who have ceeded more and more ground to their reporters on matters of style and narritive, apparently just as long as the copy itself doesn't go off in the wrong ideological direction to suit the editors' tastes. The positive thing, I guess, is it makes the corrections page more entertaining...

Posted by: John at November 1, 2004 4:12 PM

Re: the Tom Wolfe picture.

Anybody here unfortunate enough to have witnessed one of the interminable series of dreadful 'Carry on' movies that my proud nation pumped out during the 50s and 60s, will immediately spot that Mr Wolfe is doing a first-rate impression of the late camp actor Kenneth Williams.

And he is saying: "Ooooh Matron".

Posted by: Brit at November 2, 2004 4:41 AM