Tom Wolfe—Clear Eye For The Different Human
With the 1979 publication of
The Right Stuff, a brilliant non-fiction account
of the men involved in the
Tom Wolfe completed a titanic decade and a half in
which he revolutionized American journalism.
It`s the story of a brilliant
hillbilly virgin`s first half year at Dupont U.
Duke U., where Wolfe`s daughter
Alexandra graduated in 2002) and the three seniors
she attracts—Hoyt, the
George W. Bush-like alcoholic frat boy; Adam, the
nice but dorky intellectual; and JoJo, the only white
starter on the NCAA champion basketball team.
I like to think that, in discussing
human differences frankly, Wolfe violates many of the
same taboos that I do. For example, I frequently defend
sensible athletes like
Larry Bird, Paul Hornung,
Dusty Baker or the late
Reggie White from politically-correct sportswriters
who want to lynch them for telling the truth about the
racial differences in physique and sport success.
And in his latest book, Wolfe parodies the
tired spin on an ESPN talk show where:
poorly postured middle-aged white sportswriters sat
slouched in little, low-backed, smack-red fiberglass
swivel chairs panel-discussing the `sensitive` matter of
the way black players dominated basketball. `Look,` the
well-known columnist Maury Feldtree was saying, his chin
resting on a pasha`s cushion of jowls, `just think about
it for a second. Race, ethnicity, all that—that`s just a
symptom of something else. There`s been whole cycles of
different minorities using sports as a way out of the
But Wolfe makes clear the obvious
reason: Even the best white players, such as the 6`-10"
250 pound JoJo, generally are inferior in musculature to
the best black players—such as the freshman power
forward Vernon Congers, with "his mighty pecs, delts,
traps, and lats," who is threatening to take his
Wolfe has been noticing racial
differences in muscularity at least since
Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers back in 1970. There
he noted that white poverty program bureaucrats feared
the hard-muscled black protestors, but were less afraid
of the Mexicans and not at all scared of the Chinese.
The Samoans, however, left them
you ever by any chance seen professional football
players in person, like on the street? The thing you
notice is not just that they`re big but that they are
so big, it`s weird… From the ears down, the big
yoyos are just one solid welded hulk, the size of an oil
burner… Well, that will give you some idea of the
Samoans, because they`re bigger. The average Samoan
Bubba Smith of the Colts look like a shrimp. They
start out at about 300 pounds and from there they just
Although there were no Samoans in
the National Football League when Wolfe wrote this,
today there are dozens.
As in his 1998
A Man in Full, Wolfe`s new book drives the
conventionally-minded crazy by ignoring his characters`
facial features in favor of the visible markers of their
muscle to fat ratios. He rightly sees that these
indicate the hormones driving their behavior.
Indeed, Wolfe`s book is so "hormono-centric"
(as he puts it) that I can guesstimate the body fat
percentages of all his new novel`s characters.
Using PBS fitness expert Covert
table of recommendations for his clients, I`d say
that lovely Charlotte is 22% body fat, while her
snobbish and nearly-anorexic roommate Beverly is 16%.
Exploited Adam is 21%, handsome Hoyt with his six-pack
abs is 11%, jacked-up JoJo 9%, and virile Vernon 5%.
Similarly, one of Wolfe`s most
important but least popular themes is masculinity.
his previous novel,
Tom Wolfe describes how a high IQ corporate staffer,
known as The Wiz, views his lower IQ boss,
Charlie Croker, real estate developer, good old boy,
and ex-football star "with a back like a Jersey
Wiz looked upon [Croker] as an aging, uneducated,
and out-of-date country boy who had somehow,
nonetheless, managed to create a large, and, until
recently, wildly successful corporation. That the
country boy, with half his brainpower, should be the
lord of the corporation and that [the Wiz] should
be his vassal was an anomaly, a perversity of fate. . .
. Or part of him felt that way. The other part of him
was in awe, in unconscious awe, of something the old boy
had and he didn`t: namely, the power to charm men and
the manic drive to bend their wills into saying yes to
projects they didn`t want, didn`t need, and never
thought about before… And that thing was manhood. It
was as simple as that."
During my long corporate career, I
repeatedly witnessed exactly the same phenomenon—but
putting it so baldly in words leaves most people
Wolfe particularly doesn`t
win any friends among male reviewers by pointing out
that intellectuals, like Charlotte Simmons` Adam,
tend to be less masculine than jocks like Jo-Jo, who,
through sheer sense of alpha-male entitlement, forces
his tutor (Adam) to stay up all night ghostwriting his
history class reports.
Adam Kirsch in the neocon
was so unhinged by this that he threatened Wolfe with
neutron bomb of accusations—anti-Semitism—although
Wolfe`s wife, the mother of his three children, is
Jewish. (Kirsch got so many of the book`s details wrong
that it`s hard to tell if he read it or just skimmed,
looking for the naughty bits.)
another perfect example of a male reviewer—Theo Tait of
the London Review of Books—criticizing
Charlotte Simmons for everything that`s true about
Likewise, Wolfe`s message to young
women—including, presumably, his daughters—that the
tighter rein they keep on their
sexual favors, the more power they have over men—has
vastly annoyed the many women who don`t want to be
reminded about how they`ve
messed up their lives by
ignoring such advice.
What`s most striking about Wolfe`s
version of Duke U. is how, after 35 years of
institutionalized feminism, student sexuality hasn`t
progressed into an egalitarian utopia. Instead, it has
regressed to something that a caveman would understand—a
Hobbesian sexual marketplace where muscles are the
measure of the man.
This is exactly why I ended my 1997
Love Colorblind?" like this:
in the names of freedom and feminism, young women listen
less to the hard-earned wisdom of older women about how
to pick Mr. Right, they listen even more to their
hormones. This allows cruder measures of a man`s
worth—like the size of his muscles—to return to
prominence. The result is not a feminist utopia, but a
society in which genetically gifted guys can more easily
get away with acting like Mr. Wrong."
Wolfe has been ahead of his time
for his entire career. Indeed, the reputation of his
first novel, The
Bonfire of the Vanities, has suffered
plot is now often thought of as a pastiche of
stories ripped from the headlines about Al Sharpton`s
Tawana Brawley hoax, the arrest of the bond king
Michael Milken, the
Crown Heights anti-Semitic pogrom, the
Rodney King riots, and the
O.J. Simpson case.
But Bonfire appeared in 1987
… before all those events it seemingly reflects.
America`s most distinguished
jurist-intellectual, Richard A. Posner, has admitted
this in his book
first read The Bonfire of the Vanities … it just
didn`t strike me as the sort of book that has anything
interesting to say about the law or any other
institution…. I now consider that estimate of the book
ungenerous and unperceptive. The Bonfire of the
Vanities has turned out to be a book that I think
about a lot, in part because it describes with such
vividness what Wolfe with prophetic insight (the sort of
thing we attribute to
Kafka) identified as emerging problems of the
American legal system… American legal justice today
seems often to be found at a bizarre intersection of
race, money, and violence, an intersection nowhere
better depicted than in The Bonfire of the Vanities
even thought the book was written before the
intersection had come into view."
& Order," perhaps the most successful franchise
in television history, was clearly influenced by
Bonfire. Lennie Briscoe, the late
Jerry Orbach`s wonderfully
sardonic detective, could have come straight from
But producer Dick Wolf drained the
irony from Tom Wolfe`s portrayal of New York City
prosecutors. Bored and depressed by an endless stream of
black and brown lawbreakers, they torture the law to
snag a Great White Defendant. In contrast, on "Law &
abusive prosecutors who concoct
patently nonsensical legal theories to justify
Park Avenue rich are the heroes.
Although Wolfe resembles Waugh in
his conservatism, they differ in important ways.
Waugh was a jealous, cantankerous snob who said that
his Roman Catholic faith was the only thing that kept
his behavior even marginally tolerable. Except when at
his writing desk, Wolfe is a gracious man, perhaps the
last of the old-fashioned Virginia gentlemen. He doesn`t
seem to feel any personal need for religion, but
approves of it in others.
Waugh used the most elegant English
prose imaginable to limn the tawdriness of modern life.
In contrast, Wolfe modeled his prose style on his
subject: the sloppy, vulgar, and exciting America of the
booming second half of the 20th Century. His sentences
tended to be flat and functional, but studded with
brilliant phrases. For example, "Radical Chic,"
"The Me Decade," and "The Right Stuff"
have all become part of the language.
Over the years, Wolfe`s verbal
inventiveness faded. But he improved as a copy-editor of
his own prose, reaching a peak in A Man in Full,
which features numerous showstopping set pieces. The
chapter "In the Breeding Barn," a detailed
description of the astonishing process by which
thoroughbred racehorses are mated, is the most
overwhelming thing he`s ever written. (By nature a prim
and private man, Wolfe`s discomfort with writing about
sex paradoxically makes his descriptions of its power so
But the quality of Wolfe`s writing
collapsed over the last 100 pages of A Man in Full—perhaps
due to his open-heart surgery and his subsequent
depression. This left me wondering whether he`d be
able to recover at an age when most people are retired.
Fortunately, in Charlotte
Simmons, his prose style is back to a serviceable
level. And his glee over finding this great
topic—student life in a modern university—that nobody
important had touched in decades is palpable.
Additionally, making his main
character a teenage girl solves one of Wolfe`s old
problems: his fascination with fashion and decorating is
hugely important to his books, but in the manly men he
normally writes about, it always seemed a little, ahem,
gay. Like many artistic geniuses, Wolfe`s
personality encompasses a wider range of the masculine
to feminine continuum than is common among us mortals.
Back in the 1960s, Wolfe wrote some brilliant essays
about fashionable young women. But then he researched
tremendous account of Navy pilots in combat over
North Vietnam, "The Truest Sport: Jousting with
Sam and Charlie," and became obsessed with male
physical courage (which led to The Right Stuff
and much else). He seemed to lose most of his ability to
write about women—leading to the underdeveloped female
characters in his first two novels.
But his Charlotte is a painfully
accurate depiction of a how young woman typically feels:
i.e., acutely self-conscious. Wolfe has become the
Beethoven of embarrassment. He orchestrates thunderous
climaxes of social mortification every few pages.
Although some have called I am
Charlotte Simmons a can`t-put-it-down book,
personally, I had to put it down every 15 minutes or so.
I felt so bad for the young characters as they
heartbreakingly learn how the world works.
Wolfe has been accused of lacking
sympathy for his creations. But his empathy is infinite.
As with Waugh, who was mostly
dismissed as a dyspeptic middlebrow entertainer until
after his death, it will likely be several decades
before Wolfe`s greatness as a novelist is
Maybe that will be when we are also
allowed to be honest about the reality of human
[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and