Tuesday, November 30, 2004

What to Re-Read, Part I

Jacob Weisberg makes a clever distinction in his Wolfe review, one that Hugh Hewitt picks up on. "You may never put down a Tom Wolfe novel," sayeth Weisberg. "But you never reread one, either."
Well, "you" don’t, maybe, but I do.

I am a Wolfe re-reader, having for instance re-read Bonfire of the Vanities several times and The Right Stuff at least once if not twice. Bonfire, I have no doubt, will remain the quintessential fictional work of the ’80s. An important novel in several ways, it’s also a textbook of writing devices, none less effectively employed than the telling detail.

Take the half-consumed jar of mayonnaise that is hurled at Mayor Goldberg, a Jewish mayor speaking to an angry crowd in Harlem, in the opening scene:

"Something hits the Mayor on the shoulder. It hurts like hell! There on the floor—a jar of mayonnaise, an eight-ounce jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise. Half-full! Half-consumed! Somebody has thrown a half-eaten jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise at him! In that instant the most insignificant thing takes over his mind. Who in the name of God would bring a half-eaten eight-ounce jar of mayonnaise to a public meeting?"

The half-coherent image is perfect. Maybe the mayonnaise has something to do with the mayor being a white person. Or not. But, somehow, instead of being left in the refrigerator for future tuna fish sandwiches, the mayo’s been carried to a public meeting and thrown at the Mayor. Comic rage, the weird inscrutability of racial symbolism, the barbarism of democratic politics—it’s all there.

At writing school, they could teach a whole class about this mayonnaise.

Am, incidentally, about a third of the way through I am Charlotte Simmons. So a warning: I will blog more on the subject.

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