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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.

Tom Wolfe speaks at the White House Salute to American Authors in 2004. | Wiki­media Commons

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.