Opinion philip martin the novel man gas bubble in eye


And this was after the dandy in the iconic ice cream suit had already secured a place in the history of American letters by his avocation and practice of what came to be called New Journalism in the 1960s and ’70s, culminating in The Right Stuff, the 1979 book that not only validated the viability of the so-called non-fiction novel but rivals Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night as the best-ever execution of the theory.

Having set journalism straight (or awry, as some self-consciously curmudgeonly types might still have it) he set out in his mid-50s to inflict on the world his vision of what the American novel should be. Along the way he picked up a couple of $7 million advances.

Like a lot of people of my generation, I read his first novel, the sprawling Bonfire of the Vanities, when it was serialized (27 installments, starting in 1984) in Rolling Stone. The story of an arrogant Wall Street investment banker (one of the Masters of the Universe) who was served his comeuppance in a roiling nightmare of racial politics and bad luck is a wild, sharply observed ride filled with teeming detail that invites comparison to Trollope’s busy 19th-century ant-colony novels that purported to show every strata of society.

The Bonfire of the Vanities is a rich and compelling book, a joyride for the mind. It is sleek and humorous and moves as fast as a John Grisham legal thriller with the preciseness of one of Tom Clancy’s late Cold War-era munitions manuals. It is fun. It is smart. And it has aged well; it even seems prescient.

To back up his best-seller and to lend it the ballast of literary theory, in 1989 he published a blithe and bubbly 29,000-word manifesto in Harper’s called "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast" in which he proposed that the American novel should be wrought from "a highly-detailed realism based on reporting"–just like The Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe expressed impatience with novelists who seemed to be more concerned with the interior lives of characters than "in the metropolis or any other big, rich slices of contemporary." He complained that American fiction had abandoned realism for "literary games" such as minimalism, or the Raymond Carver/Gordon Lish school.

And the antidote for this navel-gazing, Wolfe declared, was a robust interest in the way things work. Only by going out and utilizing the skills of the reporter could the novelist hope to re-invigorate American fiction. All those slim gray novels, those nagging, neurotic excavations of the self, were sterile and limp, and they were killing the American novel.

To resuscitate the novel, Wolfe lectured, one would have to follow the example of Emile Zola, whose documentation trips took him into the coal mines of northern France. Wolfe invoked the muckraking spirit of Sinclair Lewis and argued that it was reportorial detail more than psychological blathering that lent the novel its power to involve and engross readers–"the petits faits vrais [little true things] that create verisimilitude and make a novel gripping or absorbing."

Wolfe was a remarkable stylist and an excellent reporter when he wanted to examine the bam-boom ’80s and mounted them on a microscope slide–he was not particularly deep, especially in his fiction, which inevitably featured characters verging on caricature meant to stand as types and symbols.

Even his nonfiction had some misfires– The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House both suffered due to Wolfe’s blinkered dismissal of the sublime. (Find a more succinct and nuanced iteration of the argument in Mark Knopfler’s "In the Gallery" on Dire Straits’ debut album.) And 2016’s Kingdom of Speech, an attempted take-down of Darwin’s theory of evolution, simply got a lot of things wrong. Wolfe could come across as proudly Philistine, and sometimes his wonderful style served to mask a curious and petty nastiness.

Wolfe took things too far; what is literary realism if it isn’t Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom books or Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter? And the avant-garde minimalism Wolfe found so objectionable was already in recession by the time he published his jeremiad. There were a lot of fey little books in the ’80s–all the period’s shiny Vintage paperbacks–but for the most part those books had as little impact as they had blood.

Yet I’m going to miss dissenting from Wolfe’s provocative arguments almost as much as I’ll miss the surge and crackle of those sentences that flapped and sparked like live wires. Wolfe understood the heat and light at the core of the American vernacular; he merged the authenticism of the Beats with the semaphoric language of advertising and made something true and potent with it. If you want to understand things about the ’60s, read the pieces–the God-almighty journalism–in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Read The Right Stuff if you want to understand the cowboy ethos of the ’50s space race and why every commercial airline pilot employs a laconic drawl. Read "The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening" if you want to understand something essential about the ’70s.

Kurt Vonnegut once called Wolfe a "genius who will do anything to get attention," and that seems a fair epitaph. He was a loud talker, flamboyant, unafraid to engage. No one really argues about fiction in a vigorous way anymore; people shrug and demur and allow that at least they’re reading something, even if it is Young Adult.

Wolfe was not a great novelist, and perhaps not a great thinker, but he was a great writer, and much of what he wrote is essential reading for anyone looking to understand America as it was in the post-war twilight of the 20th century. That that might not be enough to satisfy his appetite testifies to his ravenous spirit.