Long before Tom Wolfe started releasing big honking 700-page novels, he was the absolute master at the 3000 to 5000-word non-fiction magazine article. His potent writing style was perfectly suited to covering the wildness of the 1960s and 1970s, as a sedate post-World War II America started going crazy with hippies, protestors, dropouts, love-ins, bed-ins, be-ins, et al. His 1976 book, Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, collected several of them, including “The Intelligent Coed’s Guide To America”, an article based on a lecture at a Midwestern university where Wolfe was one several speakers who all flew-in via O’Hare airport. Also on the panel was a Paul Ehrlich-style “ecologist” who saw the world ending in the year 2000, because pollution would destroy a key ion element in the atmosphere, which would cause our bones to decay. (As today, there were so many eco-terror doom and gloom fantasies going around back then.)
After mock-fearing that the women of Wolfe’s Lexington Avenue would be walking around like deboned “denim and patent-leather blobs”, Wolfe has a brilliant passage featuring a student attending the seminar asking a question of the ecologist:
I was so dazed, I was no longer wondering what the assembled students thought of all this. But just at that moment one of them raised his hand. He was a tall boy with a lot of curly hair and a Fu Manchu mustache.
“Yes?” said the ecologist.
“There’s one thing I can’t understand,” said the boy.
“What’s that?” said the ecologist.
“Well,” said the boy. “I’m a senior, and for four years we’ve been told by people like yourself and the other gentlemen that everything’s in terrible shape, and it’s all going to hell, and I’m willing to take your word for it, because you’re all experts in your fields. But around here, at this school, for the past four years, the biggest problem, as far as I can see, has been finding a parking place near the campus.
Dead silence. The panelists looked at this poor turkey to try to size him up. Was he trying to be funny? Or was this the native bray of the heartland? The ecologist struck a note of forbearance as he said:
“I’m sure that’s true, and that illustrates one of the biggest difficulties we have in making realistic assessments. A university like this, after all, is a middle-class institution, and middleclass life is calculated precisely to create a screen-”
“I understand all that,” said the boy. “What I want to know is-how old are you, usually, when it all hits you?”
And suddenly the situation became clear. The kid was no wiseacre! He was genuinely perplexed! ….For four years he had been squinting at the horizon…looking for the grim horrors–which he knew–on faith-to be all around him…and had been utterly unable to find them … and now he was afraid they might descend on him all at once when he least expected it. He might be walking down the street in Omaha one day, minding his own business, when–whop! whop! whop! whop!–War! Fascism! Repression! Corruption!–they’d squash him like bowling balls rolling off a roof!
Who was that lost lad? What was his name? Without knowing it, he was playing the xylophone in a boneyard. He was the unique new creature of the 1970’s. He was Candide in reverse. Candide and Miss Cunegonde, one will recall, are taught by an all-knowing savant, Dr. Pangloss. He keeps assuring them that this is “the best of all possible worlds,” and they believe him implicitly–even though their lives are one catastrophe after another. Now something much weirder was happening. The Jocks & Buds & Freaks of the heartland have their all-knowing savants of O’Hare, who keep warning them that this is “the worst of all possible worlds,” and they know it must be true-and yet life keeps getting easier, sunnier, happier…Frisbee!
That’s what the past year has felt like, as the press went into maximum overdrive to convince the American public that the world was coming to an end, and the only solution was a lanky aging windsurfer from Massachusetts, who by the way, once served in Vietnam. The economy was described as being this close to collapsing, even though the Dow spent an uncertain election year right around 10,000; unemployment was rampant, even though it was at about the same low level it happily spent in 1996 when Bill Clinton was re-elected; Iraq was a quagmire, even though the average young man faced a greater odds of being knifed in a bad neighborhood in Chicago or killed in a traffic accident on I-237 than in combat, where casualties in Iraq have been remarkably lower than any major battle we’ve ever faught.
I’d love for someone to ask one of the folks at the Times, or AP, or Reuters, or even Michael Moore…when did it hit you? What made you decide that the world was coming to end–and why was it all George Bush’s fault?