Tom Wolfe Had The Right Stuff

I was deeply saddened to see that Tom Wolfe, one of the greatest writers in recent American history, died on Monday after being admitted to a New York hospital with an infection.  Wolfe was 88.

tom-wolfe-died-rolling-stone-writer-died-c0167ef2-8238-4428-a97e-eb7634d56326Tom Wolfe was an acclaimed novelist, but I will always remember him as one of the pillars of “New Journalism” in the ’60s and ’70s.  It’s difficult to overstate the impact that Tom Wolfe and the other colossal journalistic figure, Hunter S. Thompson, had on aspiring journalists in the Watergate and post-Watergate era.  Although their styles were very different, their writing had such flair and power.  Wolfe, in particular, showed enormous skill in picking and presenting topics that allowed him to skewer conventional wisdom and conventional norms and highlight some of the phoniness in modern society.  Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers, published in 1970, is a classic of the “New Journalism” genre.

And then came The Right Stuff, published in 1979 just as my tenure at the Ohio State University School of Journalism was ending.  A new non-fiction book by Tom Wolfe was eagerly anticipated, so I bought the book as soon as it came out, began reading it, and just couldn’t put it down.  It’s awesome from cover to cover, and includes everything that made Wolfe great — brilliant descriptive passages, a kind of novelistic pacing, bright, laugh out loud humor, his ability to ferret out small details that communicate a lot, and the unmatched ability to step back from something, view it from a new perspective, and then present it in a way that left you nodding your head and wondering why everybody didn’t recognize that perspective in the first place.

Wolfe’s treatment of the test pilot community, the ziggurat of achievement where a pilot could wash out at any step, and then how the American obsession with the “space race” and the Mercury astronaut program upended the order and added a new, top step to the ziggurat is just fantastic.  The book shows a writer at the absolute pinnacle of his powers; in effect, Wolfe had climbed to the peak of the ziggurat of journalism and non-fiction.  I’ve read the book countless times, and it never fails to grip me even though I know exactly what is coming.  I consider The Right Stuff to be one of the great books of the 20th century, and definitely in my top 5 list.  If you haven’t read it, you owe it to yourself to get it from the library and give yourself a treat.

Because Wolfe’s non-fiction books read like novels, thanks to his incredible creativity and skill, it was natural that he would pivot to fiction and write a series of best sellers that also captured the silly side of modern society.  His novels were good, but I always thought The Right Stuff was his greatest triumph.  In honor of the passing of this enormous talent, it’s time for me to read it again.

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Old Vegas

If you head down the Strip toward the towering Stratosphere, it’s a bit like walking back in time. You leave behind all of the huge, sprawling casino and hotel complexes, with their lovely pools and different entertainment options and fine dining establishments, and end up passing places that are much more modest in scale and cost. These are places that date back to the earlier days of Vegas, when wedding chapels, all-you-can-eat buffets, and inexpensive motel rooms were among the attractions.

One of the places you’ll pass is Circus Circus, with its giant neon clown sign. When I came to Vegas in the late ’70s with college buddies, Circus Circus was one of our specific destinations because it was featured in one of our favorite books — Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. We played blackjack there, watched some of the circus acts, and used some lucky winnings to wolf down a huge meal at the all-you-can-eat prime rib buffet.

When Doctor Gonzo wrote the book, Circus Circus was one of the new generation of casino hotels. Given Las Vegas’ seemingly constant reinvention of itself, I wondered if I would find on this trip that Circus Circus had been replaced by some new shimmering tower. I was glad to see that it is still there, offering a glimpse of a different Vegas.

A Return To Fear And Loathing

The Washington Post‘s Ruth Marcus wrote a recent column about the upcoming 2012 campaign where she used the magic words “fear and loathing” to describe what she believes will be a grueling, hard-fought battle.  I’m sure she used those words advisedly, because for any political junkie “fear and loathing” immediately conjures up memories of the greatest book on American politics ever written:  Fear and Loathing:  On the Campaign Trail ’72 by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

Before we trot off to our respective corners to gird ourselves for the bruising 2012 election, can we all take a moment — regardless of our political views — and acknowledge the greatness of this book?  It describes, in hilarious, crackling prose, Thompson’s gin-soaked, drug-addled misadventures as he manned the National Affairs Desk for Rolling Stone magazine.  He wrote about the behind-the-scenes efforts that produced George McGovern’s improbable defeat of doomed front-runner Edmund Muskie and perennial candidate Hubert Humphrey in the race for the 1972 Democratic nomination, and then McGovern’s landslide loss to President Nixon.  It includes Thompson’s report on his bizarre encounter with Nixon to discuss pro football, among countless other unforgettable vignettes.

If you’ve never read Fear and Loathing:  On the Campaign Trail ’72 I encourage you to get it and read it immediately.  It is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and its story of a political campaign is timeless.  After you’ve read this book, I can assure you that you’ll never look at a politician, or a reporter, with the same awe and reverence again.

The Budding Power Of New Journalism

Back in the 1970s, when I was a student at the Ohio State University School of Journalism, there was a lot of talk about the “new journalism.” At that time, “new journalism” referred to writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson who wrote from uniquely personal perspectives and, in the case of Dr. Gonzo, was an integral actor in his articles. Their pieces were characterized by strong, colorful language, ample irony and humor, and a willingness to express their own opinions about what they were experiencing. Two of my favorite books ever — The Right Stuff and Fear and Loathing: On The Campaign Trail ’72 — were written by these larger than life personalities.

In the past 10 days we have seen a confirmation of the extraordinary power of the newest form of “new journalism,” through the hidden camera videos exposing the rank practices and activities of ACORN employees in offices across the country. As new, ever more shocking videos are posted to websites, we have seen the Census Bureau cut its ties to ACORN and, today, the House of Representatives vote to cut off all federal funding for ACORN.

What is amazing about this story is that two young people — aged 25 and 20 — armed only with a hidden camera, an idea, and a willingness to take a few risks — have brought low a well-funded organization that was strongly supported by many politicians. Their videos were posted on a few websites and went “viral.” No established news media outlets were involved; indeed, the networks and large newspapers largely were oblivious to the story. Average Americans, however, were not oblivious. They saw the videos on the internet and were stunned by them.  Their disgust was quickly communicated to their elected representatives, who did not even attempt to defend ACORN or slow efforts to strip ACORN of government funding. It is an amazing example of how, in some ways at least, the internet has changed the world.

What does it mean? It means Americans no longer are solely dependent on established members of the news media for information. It means that individuals are far more empowered than they were before the internet made it possible for an average citizen to communicate to millions of total strangers with a few strokes of a keyboard. And finally, it means that organizations like ACORN will have to be mindful the next time a self-proclaimed pimp and prostitute walk into their offices seeking aid and advice.

Curse Of The Health Nazis

Dr. Regina Benjamin

Dr. Regina Benjamin

I am appalled by the mean-spirited comments of people who have raised questions about the weight of President Obama’s nominee to be Surgeon General.  By all accounts, Dr. Regina Benjamin is a fine family doctor who has sacrificed much for her patients; rather than maximizing her potential financial return she has pursued a practice that focuses on patient care and helping needy people in a depressed community.  Her story is inspiring, and is echoed in the stories of many other family practice doctors in communities across America.  These are doctors, healers, and counselors who, like our own family doctor, have decided that actually practicing medicine and interacting with patients is rewarding in and of itself — even if it means wrestling with insurance forms and payment issues, paying hefty malpractice insurance premiums and, in Dr. Benjamin’s case, rebuilding your clinic after fires or hurricanes.  Given her background and her accomplishments, why in the world would anyone think it appropriate to talk about her weight or her appearance?

I think there are two sources of this regrettable phenomenon.  First, many people are simply much less polite than they used to be.  Someone’s weight or appearance used to be off limits — even Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, in his classic book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, acknowledged that — but it now seems fair game to comment freely on someone’s appearance and even make fun of them if they don’t meet some ideal of physical beauty.  Second, our society often seems to be in the grip of health Nazis who think they should be able to tell us what to eat, what to drink, and how to exercise.  If we don’t meet their standards they have no problem in passing judgment on our character.  For these people, only a rail-thin fitness freak vegetarian jogger could pass muster as the Surgeon General nominee.

I think having a family doctor who has faced a bunch of real world issues serve as Surgeon General is a good idea.  Dr. Regina Jefferson may ultimately be effective or ineffective as Surgeon General, but her weight should have, and will have, nothing to do with her performance in that capacity.