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Rococo and Roll

A review of Tom Wolfe's "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby"

Evening Standard/Getty

When the dust finally settles, when Norman Mailer grows quite as white-maned and tame as Carl Sandburg, when The New Yorker ceases to print stories by Indian women about their quiet, subtle little adventures in the menstrual huts of Bombay, Mr. Tom (no relation) Wolfe will have achieved for himself a special footnote in the literary history of our lime for recording the following line: “Eeeeeeceeeeeeeeeeeeeeee”

Is this the authentic sound of modern man when, as Saul Bellow says, “night comes and he feels like howling from his window like a wolf”? Is It, quite literally, an existential groan? Does it in any way at all speak to the human condition? Not exactly. It is, in fact, the noise that issues from the throat of a certain young woman named Baby Jane Holzer as she responds to the music of the Rolling Stones. Mrs. Holzer, Wolfe informs us, is the girl of the year (last year, that is), and the Rolling Stones are modeled after the Beatles, “only more lower-class-deformed.”

Baby Jane Holzer, the Rolling Stones, Cassius Clay, Customized Cars, Disc Jockeys, Demolition Derbies, Huntington Hartford, Las Vegas, Stock-Car Racing—these are some of the subjects of Wolfe’s first collection of articles and essays, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a title which, if set to the appropriate music, should serve admirably as the entire lyric of a popular song. Although he has also written estimable hatchet jobs on Norman Mailer and on The New Yorker, these presumably are little more than side interests, like Winston Churchill’s painting or Hermann Goering’s penchant for women. Wolfe’s real beat is the American freakshow: the teenage netherworld, lower-class sports, and the poor rich.

Wolfe can get pretty exotic himself. Although he sports a doctorate from Yale in something called American Studies, he comes on, as the fellows in American Studies might say, very hip. As a titlist of flamboyance he is without peer in the Western world. His prose style is normally shotgun baroque, sometimes edging over into machine-gun rococo, as in his article on Las Vegas, which begins by repeating the word “hernia” fifty-seven times, or in this, the opening of his piece on Mrs. Holzer:

“Bangs manes bouffants beehives Beatle caps butter faces brush-on lashes decal eyes puffy sweaters French thrust bras flailing leather blue jeans stretch pants stretch jeans honeydew bottoms eclair shanks elf boots ballerinas Knight slippers, hundreds of them, these little buds, bobbing and screaming, rocketing around inside the Academy of Music Theater underneath that vast old mouldering cherub dome up there—aren’t they super-marvelous!”

Wolfe is perhaps most fatiguing when writing about the lower classes. Here he becomes Dr. Wolfe, Department of American Studies, and what he finds attractive about the lower orders, as has many an intellectual slummer before him, is their vitality. At bottom, what is involved here is worship of the Noble Savage. (Wary of precisely this sort of worship, George Orwell once reminded the members of the Left-Wing Book Club that one thing they ought to keep in mind about the lower classes is that they smell.)

In its purest form the hymn to the Noble Savage has been best sung by Jack Kerouac. “At lilac evening,” Kerouac wrote in On the Road, “I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world afforded was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.” (James Baldwin has remarked that if Kerouac isn’t getting enough night, he ought to come down to Harlem and read this particular passage from the stage of the Apollo Theater.) Wolfe never gets quite so naked about it, but he too can strike a note of supreme reverse condescension.

One of his best methods for doing so is to put that doctorate to work. In an essay on customized cars and their designers, for example, he writes: “If you study the works of Barris or Cushenberry ... or Ed Roth or Darryl Starbird, can you beat that name?, I think you come up with a fragment of art history.” There follows a discussion of customized cars in which Mondrian, Brancusi, Tiepolo, the Bauhaus Movement, Regency architecture, and the Apollonian and Dionysian lifestyle are hauled in—all in the most casual manner, of course. The customized car designers are decidedly Dionysian, we learn, and Dr. Wolfe’s own predelictions run that way as well. But the great thing, you see, is, that these poor slobs, these wonderful primitives tinkering away in a great tradition in their garages in L.A., have never even heard of Dionysus!

Wolfe is much better when he leaves the Noble Savages lie, and best of all when he writes about New York City. Here he drops his studied spontaneity, eases up on the rococo, slips his doctorate, and takes on the tone of the reasonably feeling New Yorker who has not yet been knocked insensate by the clatter of that city—the tone, that is, of exasperation. He believes Pavlov has more of value to say about New York than Freud. He himself can work up a ferocious hate for the place and, it seems to me, for all the right reasons. These are best put in an essay entitled “The Big League Complex”:

“New York more than any other city in the world probably is the city full of rich big shots—the rich, the celebrated, the glamorous. That is only half the story, however. There, at the top, are the glamorosi locked in the battle for the big prizes and the status. And there, at the bottom, are millions of people ... through whom the status feeling is racing like a rogue hormone. Much of what is chalked off as New York’s rudeness, aggressiveness or impersonal treatment is in fact nothing more than some poor bastard convinced that he is in a ‘big-league’ town, trying to put a little extra spin on his delivery”

Like a seasoned umpire trying to detect spitballs, Wolfe keeps a keen and humorous eye out for the source of that little extra spin. Inevitably it does turn out to be status. In “The Secret Vice,” an essay on men’s custom tailoring and the mania for the marginal differences that go into it, he tells of Ross, a New York lawyer who sees the world divided into two classes of men: “men with suits whose buttons are just sewn onto the sleeve, just some kind of cheapie decoration, or—yes!—men who can unbutton the sleeve at the wrist because they have real buttonholes and the sleeve really buttons up.” In “The Woman Who Has Everything,” which is about the sad life of rich young divorcees in New York, we learn of Kounovsky’s Gym, where “one goes into the cloak room and checks clothes labels for a while and, eventually, runs into some girl who has found a new place, saying, this is my last time here, I’ve found a place a place where you really have to take a shower afterwards.” Or in “The Voices of Village Square,” where Wolfe nails down the young men who today—and any day—can be found walking the streets of Greenwich Village:

“Half of them . . . look like the sort of kids who graduated in 1961 from Haverford, Hamilton or some other college of the genre known as Threadneedle Ivy and went to live in New York City. Here they participate in discussions denouncing our IBM civilization, the existing narcotics laws, tailfins and suburban housing developments, and announce to girls that they are Searching. Frankly, they are all lonesome and hung up on the subject of girls in New York. They all have a vision of how one day they are going to walk into some place, usually a second-hand bookstore on Bleecker Street west of Sixth Avenue, and there is going to be a girl in there with pre-Raphaelite hair, black leotards and a lambskin coat. Their eyes will meet, their minds will meet—you know, Searching, IBM civilization and all that, and then --.”

Sometimes the whole thing takes on real pathos, and Wolfe captures one instance of it in a brief, touching piece called “Putting Daddy On.” Daddy in this case is a New York advertising executive named Parker whose son Ben who has suddenly left Columbia in his junior year and moved into a cold-water flat on the Lower East Side. Parker is what Wolfe calls a casualty of the Information Crisis; he knows everything there is to know about human motivation, from Sir James Frazer through Rose Franzblau. He simply understands everyone’s motives, his own included, which, Wolfe tells us, he has a “tendency to talk about and revile.”

Together with Wolfe, Parker goes to visit his son, whom he refers to as “a flipnik.” At the flat he can’t get a straight word out of the kid—not even when he tells him his mother cries herself to sleep every night praying for him—and it gradually becomes clear that what Ben loathes, the sum and substance of his rebellion, is his father’s whole mode of life: that of the man who is aware of everything yet resigned to everything—a true New Yorker. Earlier in the piece, Wolfe catches the type exactly in a few lines:

“Parker is wearing a brown Chesterfield and a Madison Avenue crash helmet. Madison Avenue crash helmet is another of Parker’s terms. It refers to the kind of felt hat that is worn with a crease down the center and now dents in the sides, a sort of homburg with a flanged brim. He calls it a Madison Avenue crash helmet and then wears one.”

The Kandy-Kolored etc., etc., also includes eighteen of Wolfe’s drawings in a section called Metropolitan Sketch-book. They are all caricatures of urban types, and some are extraordinarily good, especially the one captioned “The Suburban Bohemians, show the world that despite baby, hubby, and mortgage and the breezeway, they are still . . . hip.” A few pages in this section are given over to teenage male hairdos. One, a combination of the flat top and the ducktail, is referred to as the “Chicago Boxcar.” It seems worth pointing out that in Chicago this same hairdo is designated a “Detroit.”