A Week in Books: A surreal stand-off between Gush and Bore

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The Independent Culture

This week's surreal stand-off between Messrs Gush and Bore calls for satirists rather than solicitors. At the high noon of American "New Journalism", Hunter S Thompson blazed his substance-strewn way through the bizarre 1972 presidential race to create an incendiary classic of reportage - Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. Against all the medical odds, Hunter's still with us (he has a new volume of letters due soon). He surely has a duty to stay alive for long enough to scour Palm Beach County and come back with the strange and terrible saga of the Hanging Chads.

This week's surreal stand-off between Messrs Gush and Bore calls for satirists rather than solicitors. At the high noon of American "New Journalism", Hunter S Thompson blazed his substance-strewn way through the bizarre 1972 presidential race to create an incendiary classic of reportage - Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. Against all the medical odds, Hunter's still with us (he has a new volume of letters due soon). He surely has a duty to stay alive for long enough to scour Palm Beach County and come back with the strange and terrible saga of the Hanging Chads.

Back in the Age of Nixon, Thompson would often be paired with that slightly smoother modern Swift, Tom Wolfe. Later, as Hunter went crazy in the Colorado hills, Wolfe made a stately progress into comic-naturalistic fiction, with The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full. I admired those epics, but they took a heavy toll on Wolfe the journalist. His skimpy new collection of pieces, Hooking Up (Cape, £17.99), is the first for 20 years. Even so, it's bulked out with the novella Ambush at Fort Bragg, already an audiobook.

Wolfe's showy labours in the house of fiction have glazed his once-astonishing reporter's eye. Now, Southern Gent grandstanding takes the place of research, and a grating egotism tramples over the evidence. Two under-powered essays on the debates in evolution and the "Darwin Wars" - a terrain now crawling with first-rate science writers - cruelly expose his limitations. And a silly, adolescent attack on the "three stooges" who disliked A Man in Full (Mailer, Updike, Irving) can only win cheap points by blatant distortion of his rivals' work. Where the journalist once explored, the novelist now opines. Ironically, he's guilty here of just that flight from direct observation of which he accuses his peers in American fiction.

The only flash of vintage Wolfe comes in a fine essay on the pioneers of Silicon Valley and their roots in the Protestant Mid-West. Even this must count as a belated spin-off from The Right Stuff - and a sad reminder of the glory days when Wolfe boasted as much of that as any Apollo astronaut. His bombastic poses here sound perilously close to Peregrine Worsthorne with a Virginia twang and a natty cream suit. I do hope Hunter Thompson books a trip to Florida.

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