When it comes to dazzling prose and brash, bold commentary, nobody does it better than Tom Wolfe. As the self-styled dandy turns his penetrating gaze on the human comedy in general -- and the "irresistibly lurid carnival of American life" in particular -- it can knock your socks off.
Which it does, most of the time, in "Hooking Up."
But Wolfe's new anthology -- a dozen essays spanning 30 years, plus the 1996 novella "Ambush at Fort Bragg" -- is an odd, uneven book. At its best, it displays Wolfe's gifts as a reporter without peer, a brilliant stylist, the master of the trenchant social observation. But, at times, Wolfe succumbs to cranky preachiness -- and you wonder if, at 70, the jaunty New Journalist is becoming a cantankerous old man.
The title essay, the only new one, is Wolfe at his finest.
In it, he turns a keen eye on America at the turn of a new millennium -- and finds a culture adrift in random sex, consumer overindulgence, and a dearth of meaning.
By the year 2000, Wolfe writes, "the average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman lived a life that would have made the Sun King blink."
Sexual stigmas were disappearing at an astonishing rate: "Every magazine stand was a riot of bare flesh, rouged areolae, moistened crevices and stiffened giblets," computer "adult" sites reigned supreme, and instead of dating, young people were "hooking up" -- a term for casual sexual experience, part of the changing lexicon in which reaching "`home plate' meant learning each other's names."
Terrific stuff. So are Wolfe's classic parody pieces on The New Yorker, written in 1965 for the New York Herald Tribune; a profile of Intel founder Bob Noyce; and essays on sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson and the so-called Digital Universe.
As Wolfe writes in the deliciously caustic "Digibabble, Fairy Dust, and the Human Anthill:"
"I hate to be the one who brings this news to the tribe, to the magic Digikingdom, but the simple truth is that the Web, the Internet, does one thing. It speeds up the retrieval and dissemination of information. But if these inventions have improved the human mind or reduced the human beast's zeal for banding together with his blood brethren against other human beasts, it has escaped my notice."
When Wolfe begins sniping at the academic and intellectual elite ("with wire hair sprouting out of their ears"), however, he sounds unbecomingly shrill.
And nowhere is this more apparent than in "My Three Stooges," Wolfe's impassioned attack on literary lions John Updike, Norman Mailer and John Irving for having the audacity to criticize his last novel, "A Man in Full."
Wolfe had viewed the book -- 11 years in the making -- as a work of "Zolaesque realism," the kind of novel America sorely needed, as he had asserted in a famous 1989 essay in Harper's magazine.
When Mailer, Updike and Irving panned it, however, Wolfe went ballistic. He dismissed the first two writers as "two old piles of bones," and later categorized all three as "insular, effete and irrelevant."
By the time you finish this 26-page rant, you'll likely want to declare a pox on all their houses, Wolfe's included.
For the most part, however, "Hooking Up" is vintage Wolfe -- and a treat for those who value fine writing, intelligence and swaggering literary bravura.