I hope Tom Wolfe has gotten so laid because of this book. I hope women have put down this book, thrown on some lingerie, and walked over to his apartment – unless Wolfe is gay, in which case, I hope men have done the lingerie thing. I hope women (or men) invented a time machine to travel back in time and lay young Tom Wolfe because of this book. I hope Tom Wolfe has gotten anybody he’s ever wanted – x-ray, lemon tart, girls with any shade of lipstick imaginable, men with impressive sternocleidomastoid muscles. Anybody! Not that I’m recommending everyone start stalking him. Consent first, of course. But, I wish on Tom Wolfe a lifetime supply of sex and ice cream because of this book. I’m pretty sure he’s gotten it, but just in case, my wish is out there. The idea of writing such a beautiful book kills me. How does it happen? How does someone put something this perfect together? And I don’t even want to know. I just want to read it over and over again, mystery intact.
This book made me scream and gasp and stop, sit, and stare. This is one of the audios I listened to while I walked to work, so the neighborhoods of Eugene had the dubious privilege of waking to my shrieks and hysterical cackling for many mornings in April because of Tom Wolfe. Towards the end, I had to listen in private, so that my sobbing wouldn’t embarrass the neighbors or lead to a meltdown at work. Mixed results.
Wikipedia told me that Wolfe modeled his writing after Thackeray and Dickens. It seems so obvious after you say it, but rather than realizing that, I just kept thinking, I've never read anything like this before. It was something entirely new to me. And it is because it is a book that feels so current and urban, while it clearly has classical structure and the involved plotting of Dickens and Thackeray. When I started, I thought it would probably be too dick-lit for me because it was clearly shaping up to be so hardboiled and because I think of Wolfe being in a whole gaggle of male authors who want to talk about how tough it is to have a penis and be so emotionally unavailable. Boo hoo. I have very little attention for that type of thing. But, this, this
. This was wonderful. And it was
dick-lit, but it was not in the least self-indulgent. It was even cruel, it looked so hard, and so carefully, at masculinity and cowardice. But, the structure of the plot was like a machine, just in the way that the plots of Thackeray and Dickens are. I could feel the sweat and grease of the writing process on the page, or, rather, hear it in the audio track. This book lives in the foundries of humanity; it is crafted from the fires and steel of the human heart.
For the most part, this book looks at three horrible men and how their egos and senses of puffed-up worthlessness control and destroy their lives. There are a few brilliant recurring themes in the book that I could not love more – the white whale, the Masters of the Universe. This book actually uses He-Man
as a recurring metaphor to this beautiful moment where a character, steeped in his own awesomeness yells out in his head, “I have the power!!” So, so, so, so, so, so, so wonderful.
And the courtroom scenes!! Oh, the courtroom scenes. Devastating swoon over those. They made all the hairs on my body stand on end. How can a person describe what happens in a courtroom? Like THIS! This book is what happens in courtrooms. This book is what happens in criminal justice. It got everything just right. The belts and shoelaces, the defendants demanding rights, the defense attorneys running in late because they were in another courtroom, the hot jurors, the underpaid DA. And oh my god, Kramer’s sternocleidomastoid muscles! Remember that?? It made me die laughing every time that came up. I swear to god there is a DA like that in Lane County.
And the part where Martin and Goldberg have to give Sherman his rights. Oh my god. So wonderful.
So, I have nothing insightful to say about this book because . . . just read it. Practically the minute I started reading it, it made me think of a dear friend of mine because of its urban steel and fire, so I will say something about that association because I can clearly only swoon and sigh and flail about when it comes to the book itself. Like the men in this book, there is something strikingly normal about my friend when you first meet him. He is white office shirts, a neat haircut, and clean hands. He is success: a house in the suburbs, two blond children, and a wife who, with a stern hand, makes the family take annual pictures in matching clothes. And then you talk to my friend and find out that he is an evil genius, who has an opinion about everything and a hilarious story about everyone he’s ever met. But, you also know that the suburban thing, the normalcy, is true, too. The layers of his personality include fire and steel, and also funfetti cake, white office shirts, and Kraft singles. I think this book captures something of that kind of layered humanity in Sherman’s office decorum, American aristocratic habits, and bloody knuckles. It shows Kramer’s powerful sternocleidomastoid muscles with his shopping bag and running shoes, Peter’s head in an egg and landing of the white whale, Reverend Bacon’s noble speeches and greedy maneuverings.
I think what I’m trying to say is that it struck me recently, probably at least partly because of this book, that the characteristics we show the world are us, and are not us all the same. None of us are inherently suburban or aristocratic, but our choices to appear those ways reveal something about who we actually are, who we are in the caves and recesses of our souls. Sherman is equally the shallow, self-involved Master of the Universe and the jungle fighter, but he is neither of those. My friend is urban fire and steel, and he is suburban success, and he is neither of those. Wolfe writes the show of humanity in a way that hilariously stages the show, and then digs and hammers into the caves and fiery core of who people are beyond it. Are we the dog trained to fight or the social x-ray in a party hive? The little girl sculpting a rabbit or the little boy commanding an office? Yes and no to all of that. Who we are is something different entirely, but always there, underneath the show - the force behind it. And the way Wolfe builds it all and then tears it all apart - I would never ask so much of a writer, but I am so glad this exists.