Maybe you know Tom Wolfe as one of the co-founders of New Journalism, a movement to bring the author’s voice and personality into writing about events and people; perhaps as the author of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or, more recently, The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities, both made into successful movies. On the back cover of Hooking Up he’s wearing one of his signature white suits, complete with spats: convinced of himself, flamboyant, tending to exaggerate to make his point.
For certain writers, it’s become quite the done thing to collect the essays one has published in various magazines (here Esquire, Harper’s, New York, and The New York Times Magazine) in a book every few years. It is, however, legitimate to ask the question: "Do I want to read this particular collection in this packaging?" In this case, it’s not clear why you should bother. Taken individually, the essays might be read as wry, sometimes outrageous reflections on the modern world. Taken sequentially, they’re more the ravings of an occasionally amusing writer who is currently obsessively working through a couple themes for different publications.
The essay subjects range from the founder of Intel, the field of evolutionary psychology, reflections on contemporary sexual mores, to the repercussions of a 1965 parody Wolfe wrote of New Yorker editor William Shawn. The book also contains a 70-page novella on making a TV documentary about the uncovering of the murder of a homosexual soldier at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. A sort of manifesto forms the pivot between the essays and the fiction parts of the book, a defense of the fact that his newest novel, A Man in Full, is a bestseller – and yet was attacked almost in concert by Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving. He protests that the book sold very well indeed and that the other writers are out of touch with America – "The American novel ... needs novelists with huge appetites and mighty, unslaked thirsts for ... America ... as she is right now." This protest is singularly unappealing. He quotes Irving as saying, "He doesn’t write novels – he writes journalistic hyperbole!"
And yet this claim seems confirmed by the novella, with its caricatures of TV personalities, its long passages in redneck dialect, its singularly unsympathetic narrator. By placing it directly after the manifesto, he has actually turned the tables on himself: if this is what Wolfe wants to fictionalize based on years of research on the most diverse subjects, perhaps it doesn’t add much to the world of literature.