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FRL Spotlight Review: O.k., o.k., I Like Wolfe

Tom Wolfe was on my list of must-read books in high school, back in the early 1970s (yes, young’uns, before blogging, Internet, faxing, and photocopying. I went to college with a Smith Corona with an automatic return, and that made me hot stuff).

I was supposed to like Tom Wolfe, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ken Kesey, Joseph Heller, and Frank Herbert. I did like Kesey and Heller, but the other guys left me tepid (and how interesting that we only read men in our supposedly liberated circle of not-quite-hippies). Tolkien to this day makes me squirm; Dune makes me yawn; and for a long time I found Tom Wolfe far too arch and snide.

I tried to read along with the gang, but I secretly admired and envied Lisa Heimerle not only for her trendy maxi-coat but for her strength of character; Lisa read books such as Anthony Adverse, chewing her way through mighty tomes while I was faking it about Tolkien’s little furry creatures and yearning to reread for the umpty-umpth time Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

So the first time I was reintroduced to Tom Wolfe in the MFA program I realized the error of my ways–right? Wrong. We did a close reading of “Putting Daddy On” in my second semester, and while I saw the craft, I still found Wolfe enormously irritating.

I can’t tell you what happened this semester. Most likely the Stockholm Syndrome has set in. “You… must… like… Wolfe!” “Yes, master, I LOVE Wolfe!” Well, maybe not. But for the first time I felt Wolfe was shrewd, not arch; and almost kind to his subject, Parker, a man visiting his beatnik son (Parker refers to beatniks as “flipniks”):

“Parker seems to be deflating inside his Chesterfield. Here is Parker amid the flipniks, adrift amid the litter while the gas jets burn. Parker turns to me. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says.”

I will put Wolfe on the list of authors to revisit this summer, which officially begins on May 18 for me, the day after my last class. Jarhead is first on the summer reading list, because I’ve had several suggestions that for my final project I should consider writing a memoir, not a series of essays, and one instructor said Jarhead was a cut above many. But living two blocks from a library, my list can roll on, and on.

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