Tom Wolfe spoke yesterday in San Francisco, at the Herbst Theatre, an early 1930s, 916-seat auditorium. He was introduced by Michael Lewis, who began by describing a visit to New York in 1989, shortly after Liar’s Poker was released.
“Tom Wolfe really loves your book”, his agent said.
“Oh suuuure, he does”, Lewis replied to his agent, who said, “No really, he does. And he’d like to meet you for lunch”.
“Well, I’m staying at the Algonquin. Tell him to give me a call”, Lewis told him.
“The next day, the phone rang. And a voice said, “Hi, I’m Tom Wolfe. I really loved Liar’s Poker. Where do you want to meet for lunch?”
“Well, where do you go if you want to make a splash in this town?”, Lewis replied.
“The Pool Room of the Four Seasons“, Wolfe replied.
Lewis told the audience that this room, so named because of the enormous marble fountain in the middle of it, was where so many of the movers and shakers of the 1980s met. And how he arrived there, was escorted by the maitre d’ through “Picasso Alley” until he saw a man at the other end. Lewis described him looking like as a negative image version of the famous scene in Lawrence of Arabia where Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence first meets Omar Sharif. Sharif began that scene as a small squiggly line in black, shimmering in the distance and getting larger and larger.
Wolfe, standing in the entranceway to the Pool Room, was a small squiggly line in white, getting larger and larger as Lewis approached. Meanwhile, everyone in the room was staring at the Man In White and wondering whom the young fellow Wolfe was meeting for lunch was.
After that knockout of an introduction, Lewis brought Wolfe onto the stage at the Herbst Theatre.
He asked Tom questions about his new book, how he wrote it, how he managed to get so many lurid details of modern day college life into it (through going onto campus and interviewing lots of lots of students Wolfe replied), and then questioned him about how he got started, the origin of the white suit, etc.
Having read Conversations With Tom Wolfe several times, I was struck by how many of these stories of his younger days Wolfe fires off like a shot. Because he’s interviewed and profiled so many people in his non-fiction, Wolfe is a remarkably careful speaker himself, for fear of giving out some detail that could be used against him. Some of his stories last night are virtually word for word identical to anecdotes he gave reporters 35 years ago.
Afterwards, the audience was invited to ask him questions. Two men each asked him variations on (and yes, I’m paraphrasing extensively in this post, and writing strictly from memory), “Mr. Wolfe, I’m a father, and my daughter is going off to college. I don’t mind if you lie to me, but tell me it’s not going to be Sodom and Gomorrah U.”
My favorite though, was the small nervous fellow who sat in front of me. When he first took his seat, I nudged my wife to check him out, and she told me he looked like Mike Myers’ Dieter character from Saturday Night Live’s “Sprockets” sketch.
“Yeah”, I said to her. “Except that Dieter was kind of cool in an expressionistic Bertolt Brecht Weimar Republic kind of way. Do me a favor, don’t touch this guy’s monkey, OK?”
Dieter Jr. looked like he was about 40, 5’7, 150 pounds tops. His dirty sandy-colored hair was receding on top, but curled around the base of his ears. I’m pretty sure he wore some kind of John Lennon-style glasses. He had on a black cable knit sweater a size too small and several inches too short, so that it just met his blue jeans. He wore some kind of sensible Birkenstock style shoes, and came in with the obligatory field-issue urban prole backpack. In other words, he’s approaching middle age, but doing his damndest to look like some kind of dark, moody college student: Woody Allen through an German expressionist Playdough fun factory.
When handed a radio mike by one of the ushers, he said, “Mr. Wolfe, in Hooking Up, you wrote that our souls had just died, and I thank you for that”, in a tone that was sneering, but also implied that Deiter was quite happy with science’s latest pronouncements that we’re all soulless automatons.
“Can you tell me”, he continued, “What’s going on with the radical religious right out there in the American South?”
Paraphrasing his essay, Wolfe began by explaining to him that while the current scientific theory is that we’re essentially programmed at birth and have no free will, it merely follows other theories by men such as Darwin and Freud, and will no doubt be followed by newer theories in the future, “and in the meantime, people like me will be having lots of fun writing about them”.
Wolfe then launched into variations on some of the quotes he gave England’s Guardian and London Times around election time earlier this month. He told our wannabe-Dieter that “the people in the south aren’t the Religious Right-they’re just religious. And these people are America. They’ve been that way for 200 years, and they’ll probably be that way for 200 more. They regard attacks on religion as attacks on them. If you try to take away their guns, they’ll remind you of the second amendment and tell you you’ll be staring down the barrel of one of their guns if you come for it.”
Wolfe urged the fellow–and by inference, the entire audience–to read James Webb’s recent book on the Scots-Irish and try to understand these people.
The whole thing reminded me of the Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk explains to a marooned Zefram Cochrane that there’s a whole, growing galaxy out there teeming with life that he can explore. Except that Wolfe was essentially telling an insular and emotionally walled-in left to go visit America for themselves.
Channeling the 150th anniversary Harper’s cover, and given Wolfe’s immaculate off-white double breasted suit, light blue shirt, with French cuffs joined with bright silk knots, thin white lisle socks, black and white faux-spats, and a black and white pocket square, I was struck by how the evening reminded me of what it must have been like for audiences to see a reading by Mark Twain 120 years ago.
Except that when Twain arrived in San Francisco, audiences in the post-gold rush western hinterlands would no doubt eagerly await his pronouncements on what life was like–out there–in the rest of the world, or at least, the rest of America.
I can’t help but think that “Dieter” was indicative of a lot of Blue Staters: they don’t want to know what’s going on out there, they don’t want to know about Red America, they just wish it would all go away, either through the ACLU, or die on its own accord.
Although, give ‘em credit: the audience loved Wolfe, laughing and applauding during numerous moments in his speech. Of course, I don’t think they realize just how conservative he is.
Or they wouldn’t have shown up to see him.