Saturday, May 19, 2018

Tom Wolfe (1930 - 2018)

See Note About the Cover Below*
At the end of my stint as a Peace Corps volunteer, I read Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.  I'm not exactly sure anymore what my feelings were about the novel itself, but I was obsessed by the question:  "Who wrote this?  Who is he?  How and why did he write this?"

From Thailand I flew to Hilo, Hawaii to work at the training program for the next group of Peace Corps teachers - Thai 30.

Early on, I encountered a new trainee with a book called Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe.  The title caught my attention.  When I checked it out - I don't remember now if it was on the back cover or just reading the first couple of pages - I realized the book was about Ken Kesey.  This book was going to answer the burning questions that Cuckoo's Nest had ignited in me.

Reading Wolfe is like talking to someone who never pauses - there's no place to interrupt, to say you have to leave; there's just a steady stream of uninterruptible words.   You end up just reading until the end.  Or at least I did.  I probably violated my position as a trainer when I asked the trainee if I could borrow the book.  I don't think I even asked, I think I told him I HAD to read this book.

Here's from pages two and three of the book (online here):

ABOUT ALL I KNEW ABOUT KESEY AT THAT POINT WAS THAT HE was a highly regarded 31-year-old novelist and in a lot of trouble over drugs. He wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), which was made into a play in 1963, and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964). He was always included with Philip Roth and Joseph Heller and Bruce Jay Friedman and a couple of others as one of the young novelists who might go all the way. Then he was arrested twice for possession of marijuana, in April of 1965 and January of 1966, and fled to Mexico rather than risk a stiff sentence. It looked like as much as five years, as a second offender. One day I happened to get hold of some letters Kesey wrote from Mexico to his friend Larry McMurtry, who wrote Horseman, Pass By, from which the movie Hud was made. They were wild and ironic, written like a cross between William Burroughs and George Ade, telling of hideouts, disguises, paranoia, fleeing from cops, smoking joints and seeking satori in the Rat lands of Mexico. There was one passage written George Ade—fashion in the third person as a parody of what the straight world back there in the U.S.A. must think of him now:
"In short, this young, handsome, successful, happily-married-three-lovely-children father was a fear-crazed dope fiend in flight to avoid prosecution on three felonies and god knows how many misdemeanors and seeking at the same time to sculpt a new satori from an old surf—in even shorter, mad as a hatter.
"Once an athlete so valued he had been given the job of calling signals from the line and risen into contention for the nationwide amateur wrestling crown, now he didn't know if he could do a dozen pushups. Once possessor of a phenomenal bank account and money waving from every hand, now it was all his poor wife could do to scrape together eight dollars to send as getaway money to Mexico. But a few years previous he had been listed in Who's Who and asked to speak at such auspicious gatherings as the Wellesley Club in Dah-la and now they wouldn't even allow him to speak at a VDC [Vietnam Day Committee] gathering. What was it that had brought a man so high of promise to so low a state in so short a time? Well, the answer can be found in just one short word, my friends, in just one all-well-used syllable:
"And while it may be claimed by some of the addled advocates of these chemicals that our hero is known to have indulged in drugs before his literary success, we must point out that there was evidence of his literary prowess well before the advent of the so-called psychedelic into his life but no evidence at all of any of the lunatic thinking that we find thereafter ! "
I think I gave the trainee his book back the next morning, so my abuse of power was short-lived.  (Whoever I borrowed it from, thank you for having it and letting me read it.)

From Acid Test I went on to Radical-Chic and Mau-Mawing the Flak Catcher.  I suspect that The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby was next and then The Right Stuff,  then Bonfire of the Vanities and I think the last one I read was A Man In Full.  

So, Tom Wolfe, thank you for giving me great reading pleasure over the years and for shaking up the worlds of journalism and novel writing.  Here's a recollection by Paul Elie from The New Yorker of editing A Man In Full.

*The image is from Bookazon.  It's a much later edition than the one I read because it mentions The Right Stuff which didn't come out until 1978.  I know I ran across my own copy recently, but with all the mess here (the workers finished up today, but there's still plenty of stuff piled up in the downstairs bedroom.  I'm hoping much of it leaves the house rather than coming back upstairs), I couldn't find it.  Besides, it might well be on a book shelf in my mom's house in LA.  Or maybe it was really The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby that I saw.

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