Click! Clack! Varoom! Varoom! — Of the Wolfes, Thomas (1900-1938) and Tom (1930-2018)
By Stuart Mitchner
Stretching across two pages of the November 1963 issue of Esquire Magazine is a title flamboyantly geared to catch the reader’s eye: “There goes (VAROOM! VAROOM!) that Kandy-Kolored (THPHHHHHH!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (RAHGHHHH!) around the bend (BRUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM …)”
Left in the dust in the far right corner in relatively tiny letters is the author’s name, Thomas K. Wolfe, soon to become Tom Wolfe. When he died last week at 88, the words most often used by obituary writers scrambling to describe Wolfe’s pop-flavored prose style were “pyrotechnical” or “pyrotechnics.” Variations included “technicolor, wildly punctuated” in the New York Times, where Dwight Garner’s tribute highlighted the “bursts of asterisks, the scattering of exclamation points and ellipses, the syncopated distribution of repeated phrases and capitalized words.” The Washington Post weighed in by rightly drawing attention to “all that onomatopoeia.”
The First Thomas Wolfe
Another writer with an exclamatory style and a talent for repeated phrases and onomatopoeia died 80 years ago in a Baltimore hospital two weeks shy of his 38th birthday.
“My parents had a hard time convincing me that he was no kin whatsoever,” says Tom Wolfe in a 1991 Paris Review interview, “but as soon as I was old enough I became a tremendous fan of Thomas Wolfe and remain so to this day.” He remembers seeing copies of Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River on “the shelves at home” when he was growing up.
After reading Tom Wolfe’s “Las Vegas (What?) LAS VEGAS (Can’t hear you! Too noisy) LAS VEGAS!!!!” with its opening paragraph in which the word hernia is repeated more than 50 times variously spelled HERNIA, hernia, HERNia, I opened Of Time and the River at random, imagining young Tom’s response to the typographic fireworks display on page 69:
“Click, clack, clackety-clack; click, clack, clackety-clack …!
“Hip, hop, hackety-hack; stip, step, rakety-rack; come and fetch it, come and fetch it, hickety hickety hack!
“Rock, reel, smash, and swerve; hit it, hit it, on the curve; steady, steady, does the trick, keep her steady as a stick; eat the earth, eat the earth, slam and slug and beat the earth, and let her whirr-r, and let her pur-r, at eighty per-r!
“—Put ‘er there, boy!
“—Put ‘er there — whah! — whah-h! ….
“—Whoop-ee! Whah — whah-h!”
Picture an impressionable young writer with the same name as the famous
novelist being hit smack between the eyes by this exuberant outburst of syncopated onomatopoeia.
For that matter, picture the first Thomas Wolfe’s austere, congenitally contained editor Maxwell Perkins arriving at the same passage on the wings of uncontainable prose about “three atoms on the huge breast of the indifferent earth, three youths out of a little town walled far away within the great rim of the silent mountains … three nameless grains of life among the manswarm ciphers of the earth … — and each of them a flame, a light, a glory, sure that his destiny is written in the blazing stars ….”
His Towering Namesake
The word-drunk giant from North Carolina was the stuff of legend, amassing manuscripts of mythical dimensions and unloading them on Max Perkins, his tireless editorial chaperone laboring in the shadow cast by a mountain range of unbounded unedited Wolfe, a New Yorker cartoon waiting to happen. Outsized in stature, in appetite, in his lust for quantity, Thomas Wolfe was the archtype of the promethean artist. What a cruel fate for an aspiring writer, to be burdened with the exact same name as the author of big sprawling novels who even two decades after his death still loomed like a lost Gulliver over the landscape of American literature. At the outset of his career Thomas K. Wolfe had no choice but to rein in his novelistic ambitions and make a new name for himself writing non-fiction. And so he became Tom Wolfe. Is it any wonder that he rarely refers in print to his towering namesake? The author of Look Homeward, Angel is only mentioned in passing along with 18 other American authors in “My Three Stooges,” where Tom Wolfe stridently skewers novelists Norman Mailer, John Updike, and John Irving for daring to dismiss his big best-seller A Man In Full as nothing but “entertainment,” mere “journalistic hyperbole.”
You can almost see the elephant in the room of that essay as Tom W. bemoans the fact that the American novel is “dying of anorexia. It needs … food. It needs novelists with huge appetites and mighty, unslaked thirsts for … America,” novelists with “energy and verve” and “a ravenous curiosity.” He may be alluding to himself but he’s inadvertently describing his namesake, the hungriest, most hugely, ravenously curious scribbler of them all. It’s also fitting that the title of Dwight Garner’s recent memorial appreciation of Tom Wolfe — “A Vivid Writer, Florid to Critics, Full of Wonder About America” — could just as well be referring to Thomas Wolfe.
Going Overwhelmingly Overboard
By the 1960s, the book world’s common wisdom had consigned Thomas Wolfe to the lower depths of irrelevance. All but forgotten was his ear for dialogue and talent for mimicry, his expertise in orchestrating large-scale set pieces, his willingness to play fast and loose with the English language, and his irrepressible syntactical extremism. Which is why few reviewers or readers were aware of the way spare parts from the work of Thomas Wolfe were being wired and soldered into the vehicle of Tom Wolfe’s style, as if it were nothing less than the prose equivalent of the customized car in “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Baby.”
The big man was on a mission, his compulsion to go overwhelmingly overboard tied to a quest to consume every atom of life as he saw it. When Tom Wolfe finally begins writing his first novel The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), he’s still operating like a journalist fulfilling an assignment, doing interviews and gathering data. Thomas Wolfe always, always thinks as a novelist. After spending time with Sinclair Lewis, he brings the author of Main Street vividly to life as Lloyd McHarg in You Can’t Go Home Again. He manages a more subtle version of the same thing in the same novel when he turns Max Perkins into Foxhall Edwards.
Speaking of editors, it was while reading “Tiny Mummies,” Tom Wolfe’s scathing profile of The New Yorker’s reclusive William Shawn, that I first sensed his debt to Max Perkins’s Wolfe. This sudden intuition was most likely prompted by the use of dashes in a reconstructed anecdote wherein Shawn goes to the home of a writer whose article is overdue. After pushing past the writer’s wife (“nodding, smiling, rolling his eyeballs up and down his forehead, edging in — ‘uh–I’m afraid-I’m-going-to-have-to-take-a-manuscript-from-your-husband’”), the editor actually barges into the writer’s study, grabs the article, and makes his exit (“he edges back toward the door, nods his head down, down, down, smiles, rolls his eyes up from under his forehead, edges back,” the “clackety buckles” on his boots clackling).
The way Tom Wolfe shapes the sequence, each dash is like a string jerking the puppet formed in Shawn’s image, the nodding head, the robotic civility, all of it in the controlling hands of a journalist with an aggressive agenda. When Thomas Wolfe describes the fictional Max Perkins conversing with one of his daughters, the effect is expansive, novelistic, analytical, and essentially sympathetic; the dashes and hyphens are there along with the italicized emphasis not to mock but to depict the “tribal accent” used by the editor’s children (“but, daddy — wha-at? …. Ye-e-s. It’s tr-u-e”), whose tone is “characterized by a kind of drawl … a wearied-out, exasperated drawl, as if they have almost given up hope of making” their father “—
or someone — understand what ought to be obvious without any explanation whatsoever.”
The Thing About Image
When you discover Thomas Wolfe in your late teens, if not sooner, you don’t have to be 6’6” to identify with him. The image of an awkward young genius possessed by the urge to express himself in words is instantly appealing. The dandified image Tom Wolfe cultivated always seemed to be be smugly smiling at me from the threshold of his journalistic universe. Reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) is a challenge if you’re making the journey with the man in the white suit.
By the way, the title roaring sensationally across two pages of Esquire is nowhere to be seen in the classic 1965 collection bearing the article’s name, which is simply titled, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Baby.”
No Varoom! Varoom! No Thphhhhh!, no Rahghhhh! no Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm!