BAM! A right cross to that sniveling Charles Darwin and his so-called “Theory of Evolution.” Then … WHAP! A slap to Noam Chomsky and his sycophantic band of MIT-desk-bound Darwinian linguists.
That’s the conceit of “The Kingdom of Speech,” New York City-based journalist Tom Wolfe’s 2016 book which argues that it is language, not natural selection, that distinguishes man from the animals.
Unfortunately, “Kingdom” is not worth reading. Wolfe’s abilities have diminished in recent years — not surprising for an 85-year-old well into the twilight of his career. The once-great chronicler of post-sexual revolution American life has become as desk-bound and dislocated from reality as the people about whom he now writes.
It was not always this way. In the 1960s, Wolfe would travel the country looking for the weird and destitute, and then became famous for writing needling social commentary about the American character. In one of his early essays, “The Pump House Gang,” Wolfe dives into West Coast surfer culture and presents the lazy excesses of 1966 La Jolla, California. That So Cal laissez faire oozes through Wolfe’s writing — careless punctuation, unexplained uses of slang, vivid stories about the Windansea beach that were never entirely factual — all in service of imprinting Wolfe’s vision of modern America on the eyes of his readers. Those kids outracing the waves on the golden California beach are fleeing from the future, from structured families, from the bondage of a never-ending class struggle … into the vain hopes of eternal youth, dreading that passing glance in the mirror when one stray gray hair pops out …
Wolfe would go on to recreate the lives of 1960s counterculture titans like Playboy magnate Hugh Hefner and Ken Kesey, the proto-hippie author behind “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Because of his brash style and anecdotal critiques of these anti-heroes’ excesses, Wolfe emerged as at the leading force behind an emergent style of reporting called “New Journalism.”
New Journalists disregarded the “just the facts ma’am” style of reporting standard among mainstream media outlets and instead told their audiences highly personalized stories that placed greater emphasis on truths about society than a factual record of events. Wolfe pioneered this style along with a few other New Journalists — most prominently Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson — to reinvigorate the now-popular journalistic essay form. By burying fact in vivid personal experience, they skipped the boring stuff and just told true stories.
Wolfe mastered his form with the 1970 essay “The Radical Chic,” a story about a dinner party the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein held for the militant racial equality group, the Black Panthers, in his New York apartment. Socialites of Bernstein’s ilk believed it was fashionable to support radical causes that “normal” people dared not touch. Wolfe’s essay blasts the Bernsteins of Upper East Side hypocrisy — while ostensibly embracing the Black Panther cause, they masked their own cultural racism by importing white servants from South America to replace the black ones that were common in swanky Manhattan apartments of the day. The essay stirred the reading public, and the phrase “radical chic” has since entered everyday speech to describe a hypocritical activist.
Wolfe turned his journalistic skills to fiction in the 1980s and wrote “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” a Dickensian novel — both in length and scope — about New York City’s underbelly. The story follows Sherman McCoy, a “master of the universe” … but really nothing more than a WASP bond salesman who lives on Park Ave., cheats on his wife — who was older than him, but hey, she was rich — and sets off a scandal that rocks all of New York.
To write the novel, Wolfe immersed himself entirely in New York life. He sat in courtrooms for weeks, followed Wall Street workers’ daily routines, and explored all five boroughs of the city. Wolfe noted everything — even down to the fact that colorful sneakers were becoming commonplace on subway commutes — to produce a novel that captured the corruption and grittiness of New York in the 1980s.
“Bonfire” had a lasting impact on American culture. Since its publication, movies like “Wall Street” and books like “American Psycho” have closely examined the corruption and inanity of American urban society which Wolfe had so painstakingly researched. And like the phrase “radical chic,” Sherman McCoy’s self-proclaimed title has become a byword for the self-obsessed and powerful. A recent example: Early in Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Jordan Belfort gloats to the audience about how stacking penny stocks has made him a “master of the universe.”
Since “Bonfire” however, the quality of Wolfe’s work has decreased. As he ages, he no longer can go out and live among his characters and tell true stories. It seems Wolfe can only write messy opinion pieces and awkwardly sexual novels that read like a bad parody of his past brilliance. “Kingdom” is no different. For all of swipes and jibes at the literati of the Theory of Evolution, the book is nothing more than the product of a bad day in front of the computer.
But don’t dwell on Tom Wolfe’s current work. Read “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Read “The Radical Chic.” Read “The Pump House Gang.” When he writes well, Wolfe captures the grotesque American longing for status and comfort — and has us laughing at our insecurities the whole way.