Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Tom Wolfe | Lefsetz Letter

“I do believe you’re writing the first autobiographical newsletter.”

That’s what Tom Wolfe wrote me in the nineties, before the internet, before I became self-conscious about revealing my truth for fear of blowback.

Tom Wolfe was never afraid. He threw bombs into the villages of conventional wisdom. He hewed to his own inner voice. He was a cultural signpost.

“The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” was a rite of passage, back when collegians still read books to point the way. Word came down you had to read it, and when you did…

You not only learned about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, you were informed of a whole philosophy.

This was before the movie, a couple of years later we all read “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and just after the counterculture had embraced Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road,” but it was “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” that spread the ethos of this roving band with its own philosophy.

You were either on the bus or off. And it didn’t matter whether you were actually inside or outside, it was a state of mind. Kinda like long hair. Just because you had it, it didn’t mean you were a free, left-wing experimenter.

“The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” changed my life, as it did for so many others, because it illustrated the POSSIBILITIES! In a world that was your oyster, where you didn’t have to jump through preordained hoops just to survive.

Tech…only a few can get rich.

The rest of us are living lives of drudgery so we can buy the stuff the corporations sell us and get high at night.

That’s life in the twenty first century.

And there’s always been an overclass, an elite we’re supposed to adore and emulate. But Wolfe had no problem skewering Leonard Bernstein’s tribe’s foray into “radical chic.” Who is the person who’s going to skewer the Met Gala? Even better, the royal wedding, tell me why I should care again?

And I remember reading about the “Me Decade” in “New York” magazine on my flight to law school, learning about EST for the very first time, before the self-improvement quacks gained traction across America, before the eighties, the greed decade. Wolfe could see things, both past and present.

Like the space program. His account in “The Right Stuff” is now the de facto story, the one we all refer to, Chuck Yeager is a bigger hero than anybody who got into a capsule.

And despite the movie being so bad, “The Bonfire of the Vanities” captured an era that was puffed-up, when money first began to rule, trump every other quality, as it still does.

So Wolfe was a seer.

But even more he was a stylist, even though he’d hate that word. Because his writing was not affected, it was truth. He played with the art form, he was beholden to no strictures, he skewered “The New Yorker,” which is still too self-satisfied.

One of my most memorable moments, in a bad way, is taking a creative writing course at Middlebury from a professor who wrote sea stories, unsuccessfully. When I read in class it was like “Springtime for Hitler,” jaws would drop, mouths would be agape, nothing would be said. But one time I wrote something that John Clagett, you can never forget the names of impediments, kinda liked, but he said it needed a twist. This was 1973, had he ever heard of Tom Wolfe, of the New Journalism, which was already OVER??

Nobody in that class became a writer. John Clagett died in obscurity. They were about conformity, there’s not only no future in that, but no fun.

Tom Wolfe liked fun.

He lived to the ripe old age of 88, unlike our rock stars, he didn’t abuse his body and die young, we got to see what he could create in his later years. And the usual suspects still decry him. Although most of them are dead. Like the novel. Which is now about style as opposed to plot. That’s what’s lauded in the highfalutin’ journals, what’s taught in MFA programs, ones that say rewriting and editing are king.

No, INSPIRATION is king, and the key is to capture it and not beat the life out of it whilst getting it on paper.

If you’ve never read “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid” test you should. It’ll tell you what happened in California back in the sixties. When it was pooh-poohed as it is now. People can’t handle those who break from the pack. And although they accept Hunter Thompson, he was seen as a comedic character, a court jester who truly wanted a seat at the table, whereas Wolfe never became his subjects, never partook, was always the observer, never worried about offending someone, he was a beacon.

And to me he still is.


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