Some 250 words into Tom Wolfe’s latest volume of essays and short fiction, buried like a sacred lost scroll, is an ancient, infamous article called ”Tiny Mummies.” Unseen since its initial appearance in New York magazine in 1965, the story — and the story behind the story (how the New Yorker’s longtime editor William Shawn tried to stop its publication; how it helped turn a young Wolfe cub into a notorious media celeb) — has become the stuff of legend over the decades. And now here it is, the unearthing of a major archaeological find.
But more about ”Tiny Mummies” later. The publication of Hooking Up, Wolfe’s first book of short pieces in 20 years, is reason enough for celebration. Since becoming a bestselling novelist — first in 1987 with ”The Bonfire of the Vanities,” and then, two years ago, with ”A Man in Full” — it seemed as if the master of New Journalism had abandoned himself to literature forever. Happily, as this collection of mostly recent essays proves, he has not. Less happily, well… there are also signs in these pages that Wolfe, 70, has perhaps grown a bit long in the fang.
Take, for example, the title article, a minor piece of tomfoolery called ”Hooking Up: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the Second Millennium: An American’s World.” It’s supposed to be a wry sociological survey of contemporary sexual mores — all arched brow and Wolfean witticisms — but the tone quickly slips into eye blinking shock and disgust. Always a bit of a prude in his prose, Wolfe seems utterly unable to cope with the pornographic culture of the 21st century.
To be sure, nobody blushes more amusingly — ”Every magazine stand was a riot of bare flesh, rouged areolae, moistened crevices, and stiffened giblets: boys with girls, girls with girls, boys with boys, bare breasted female bodybuilders, so called boys with breasts, riding backseat behind steroid gorged bodybuilding bikers, naked except for cache sexes and Panzer helmets, on huge chromed Honda or Harley Davidson motorcycles” — but sheesh. Slip this guy some smelling salts.
Fortunately, he’s on form in other pieces. His ruminations on recent advances in genetics, computers, and neuroscience, in catchily titled stories like ”Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died,” are as riveting as anything he wrote in ”The Right Stuff.” The all too brief novella ”Ambush at Fort Bragg” — originally intended as a section of ”A Man in Full” — contains splendid stuff too, even if it is rather thin and unfinished.
Most of these stories, incidentally, originally appeared in magazines like New York and Rolling Stone, but there are a few completely fresh offerings. By far the best is ”My Three Stooges,” Wolfe’s deftly brutal counterattack on the trio of literary heavyweights — John Updike, John Irving, and Norman Mailer — who pounced on ”A Man in Full” with vicious reviews. ”At one point,” Wolfe offers in his critique of the characters in Irving’s own last novel, ”A Widow for One Year,” ”the two of them… leave the house! They get in a car! They’re driving through a nearby hamlet… and I’m begging them to please stop — park next to the SUVs and German sedans and have a soda at the general store… do something — anything….”
Wolfe, of course, is never sharper than when he’s on the offensive. Which brings us back to ”Tiny Mummies,” his infamous two part swipe at the then sacrosanct New Yorker. By today’s rough and tumble standards, it’s not the ruthless pillaging its reputation suggests: It reads more like a mild poke in the eye. Basically, Wolfe accused the New Yorker’s writers of being a bunch of pretentious boobs and called their editor a weirdo. Big whoop. But the furor the piece touched off was amazing.
Everyone from J.D. Salinger to Walter Lippmann to the White House rushed to pile on Wolfe — all of which he lovingly recounts in his perfectly pitched, exquisitely turned foreword to the piece. ”May I offer you, here at the end,” he writes, presenting his lost masterpiece, twinkle firmly in eye, ”something on the order of those two gold foil wrapped, silver dollar sized chocolate covered peppermint coins the franchise hotels put on your pillow when they turn down your bed at night?”