The Last Realist

  • ©2002 Everett Raymond Kinstler Source


    By now you’ve all seen, heard, and read that the great Tom Wolfe died this week. His social satire and sardonic wit carved out a distinctive path through post-modern America. Wolfe championed a literary style that was part journalism, part acerbic effervescence. Few (if any) recent writers were better able to craft stories by such vivid portrayals of particular people in particular places at particular times.

    Here is Tom Wolfe in one of his many interviews with William F. Buckley on Firing Line. Just two mid-century Yale Men parlaying over the Black Panthers, Bernstein, Balzac, Homo Ludens, and the Mets disappointing season.

    The question by the gentleman at around 39:45 is actually a good one and a complaint Wolfe faced his entire career. As a chronicler, he had a tendency to paint the events into flourishes that steered the situations toward the underlying themes that he was using to make his broader point. Conversely, as a novelist he was accused of conflating ordinary details into fantastic baroque ideals.

    There’s no denying that Wolfe was the master of expansive simplification. The principles of his style required a complete accounting of all the dimensions of the scene.

    The culmination of that manifesto was nowhere more on display than in his masterpiece The Bonfire of the Vanities. Here is snippet from chapter 5 following Kramer walking into the DA’s office.

    The guard buzzed Kramer through the gate, and Kramer’s running shoes
    squeaked on the marble floor. The guard gave them a dubious onceover. As
    usual, Kramer was carrying his leather shoes in an A&P shopping bag.
    Beyond the entryway, the level of grandeur in the District Attorney’s
    Office went up and down. The office of Weiss himself was bigger and showier,
    thanks to its paneled walls, than the Mayor of New York’s. The bureau chiefs,
    for Homicide, Investigations, Major Offenses, Supreme Court, Criminal Court,
    and Appeals, had their share of the paneling and the leather or school-of
    leather couches and the Contract Sheraton armchairs. But by the time you got
    down to an assistant district attorney, like Larry Kramer, you were looking at
    Good Enough for Government Work when it came to interior decoration.
    The two assistant district attorneys who shared the office with him, Ray
    Andriutti and Jimmy Caughey, were sitting sprawled back in the swivel chairs.
    There was just enough floor space in the room for three metal desks, three
    swivel chairs, four filing cabinets, an old coat stand with six savage hooks
    sticking out from it, and a table bearing a Mr. Coffee machine and a
    promiscuous heap of plastic cups and spoons and a gummy collage of paper
    napkins and white sugar envelopes and pink saccharine envelopes stuck to a
    maroon plastic tray with a high sweet-smelling paste composed of spilled coffee
    and Cremora powder. Both Andriutti and Caughey were sitting with their legs
    crossed in the same fashion. The left ankle was resting on top of the right
    knee, as if they were such studs, they couldn’t have crossed their legs any
    farther if they had wanted to. This was the accepted sitting posture of
    Homicide, the most manly of the six bureaus of the District Attorney’s Office.
    Both had their jackets off and hung with the perfect give-a-shit
    carelessness on the coatrack. Their shirt collars were unbuttoned, and their
    necktie knots were pulled down an inch or so. Andriutti was rubbing the back
    of his left arm with his right hand, as if it itched. In fact, he was feeling
    and admiring his triceps, which he pumped up at least three times a week by
    doing sets of French curls with dumbbells at the New York Athletic Club.
    Andriutti could afford to work out at the Athletic Club, instead of on a carpet
    between a Dracaena fragrans tub and a convertible couch, because he
    didn’t have a wife and a child to support in an $888-a-month ant colony in the
    West Seventies. He didn’t have to worry about his triceps and his deltoids and
    his lats deflating. Andriutti liked the fact that when he reached around behind
    one of his mighty arms with the other hand, it made the widest muscles of his
    back, the lats, the latissima dorsae, fan out until they practically split his
    shirt, and his pectorals hardened into a couple of mountains of pure muscle.
    Kramer and Andriutti were of the new generation, in which the terms triceps,
    deltoids, latissima dorsae, and pectoralis major were better known than the
    names of the major planets. Andriutti rubbed his triceps a hundred and twenty
    times a day, on the average.

    And that’s just the scene and status. The dialogue continues with the obligatory obscenities and a glimpse of “donkey loyalty”, as Wolfe calls the tribal ties that contrast the “Favor Bank” of the legal system.

    Rest in Peace Tom Wolfe, and thank you for your works that contributed to our awareness and understanding of this ever perplexing world.

    11 thoughts on “The Last Realist”

    1. Great writer. I especially enjoyed ‘A Man in Full’. There was talk of making it into a movie…it could have been a very good one…doubt if it would have been very popular in certain circles in Atlanta…not sure what happened to that idea.

    2. I enjoyed his non-fic better than the fiction, to be honest, although Bonfire of the Vanities had some ‘etched in acid’ sarcasm throughout, and some brilliant episodes and characterizations. My favorite has always been From Our House to Bauhaus. Before I read it, I only knew that I despised modern architecture with the passionate hatred of a thousand burning suns. After I read it, I knew why.

    3. In “A Man in Full,” there is a vignette centering on an article in a local Atlanta magazine. The article is titled “The Prams What Am,” and it’s about upscale BABY CARRIAGES….with names like the Silver Cross–that are being purchased by Atlanta socialites.

      I thought this was a parody, and a pretty funny one, of a certain kind of snob and of the magazines designed to appeal to such people.

      Well, a few years after reading the book I saw a short item in USA Today. Turns out there actually IS a baby carriage called the Silver Cross–it goes for $2800, has been made in England since 1877, and is now enjoying success in the U.S. There are at least two other companies making “hot” high-end strollers, although these come in at significantly lower price points.

      Who buys these things? USA Today quotes a marketing expert: “These are the girls who had manicures and carried Coach bags when they were 18-year-olds.”

      Parody as a literary form is obsolete….Wolfe didn’t need it very often, with real-life examples like this one.

    4. The Painted Word was also a book satirizing modern culture. In that one it was modern art. The emperor wore no clothes not necessarily because of any scam or con game, but because of the hypocrisy of people claiming to be outsiders or avant-garde who were actually operating as conventional mainstream with the full support of key players in fashion and media.

      Wolfe somewhat revisits that in A Man in Full with the obscene society art show that was their attempt at Cosmopolitanism. This time the protagonist Croker was fully aware of the nonsense but rambled through it all with his manly charm and stoic dismissiveness.

    5. It has been years since i read The Right Stuff – but there was a passage towards the very front that stayed with me all these years – about an early 50s test pilot – testing ejection seats. He is falling through 8,000 feet – his chute isn’t opening but he is still calmly radioing data to the ground.

    6. Not to change the subject, but I miss Buckley (and Russel Kirk). I guess I’ve lead a sheltered life.


    7. Wolfe at Princeton in 1968 (via Instapundit)

      Also, an important observation from his 2000 book Hooking Up Smart:

      “The intellectual had become not so much an occupational type as a status type. He was like the medieval cleric, most of whose energies were devoted to separating himself from the mob—which in modern times, in Revel’s phrase, goes under the name of the middle class.”

      Indeed, it has long seemed to me that liberalism/’progressivism’ is not so much a collection of policy beliefs as it is an assertion of a (claimed or hoped-for) status position

    8. I read “Bonfire of the Vanities” when it came out and it was such black humor that I could not sit and read it through, like I had a couple of Tom Clancy novels. I had to read it in short episodes. No one in the book is a sympathetic character.

      In 1995, I had occasion to testify in med-mal case in the Bronx Supreme Court, the court house in the novel. It was exactly as described.

      I walked in and found no benches to sit. I asked the security guard where I was to sit since I was a witness and they would not want me in the courtroom until I was to testify.

      The guard informed me that, if there were benches to sit, “They would be full of bums sleeping.” He arranged for me to wait in the law library.

      The lawyer, whose witness I was, was a criminal defense lawyer who matched the Richard Dreyfuss character in the movie “”Nuts.”

      His client had been shot by his probation officer and had lost his leg through some negligence of the city hospital. His previous expert witness was the new Director of the New York Hospital System and had to withdraw. I had an entire new theory of the case. They had missed a compartment syndrome. I’m not sure the previous expert was a vascular surgeon although well connected politically.

      His office had a window air conditioner surrounded by a metal cage to prevent his clients from stealing it.

      The case was tried with a jury of only 7. During deliberations, the jury sent a note out to the judge asking that one juror be ordered to bathe as he smelled so bad they could not stand to be in the same room with him.

      The jury came back with a $500,000 judgement and the lawyer was ecstatic. His share was probably half his annual income.

      He insisted that, if I was ever there again, I must call him so he could take me to dinner.

      The book was dead on. I have downloaded the audio of “A Man in Full,” for once the Lansdale bio I’m listening to is finished.

    9. Mike, that’s a great story. Big city courts are such rich ground for satire because with all their legalities, procedures, and rituals they attract a lot of interesting characters.

      There is a lot of moral ambiguity and ethical indifference in the book. Bad things happen to bad people. Good things happen to bad people. Nobody seems either good or bad. Except for maybe the judge, but if he’s the good guy it’s only because he narrows the focus of the action by shoehorning it back down into the black-and-white confines of the legal system. After dismissing the case, a mob brawl breaks out, which isn’t exactly an ideal resolution. Sherman fights his way to the elevator, and that seems to signify a measure of redemption.

      That jibes with the Jonathan Swift piece in the Free Beacon:

      If left-wing intellectuals celebrated a trans-valuation of values that privileged the absurd, the surreal, the deviant, the deranged, and the marginal over bourgeois propriety, steadfastness, patriotism, tradition, hierarchy, and manliness, Wolfe did the opposite. His immersive reporting and wicked pen exposed the pretense and self-delusion of intellectuals as he revealed the heroism and nobility of workers, soldiers, parents, cops, and America herself.

      The elaborate intellectual systems that we construct to rule and regulate society may be efficient and rational. They often lack a key component that only comes from the contributions of small groups, families, or individuals, and that is virtue. Something impossible to artificially create or impose, and sometimes requires fighting for.

    10. As a long time fan of “Firing Line”, I thank you for sharing this. One observation: it took me a minute or so to realize that “the gentleman at around 39:45” is a very young Jeff Greenfield, who seemed quite exercised by what he took to be mockery on Wolfe’s part throughout the book. Wolfe’s patient and polite explanation was delightful.

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