Cringe if you're a native New Yorker

The people who love Tom Wolfe are exactly the kind of people he loves to hate in his books.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"ARE YOU actually charging for tickets?" mouthed the blonde, scooping up her complimentary pass to Tom Wolfe's Wednesday night reading from his latest 528-page morality-tale-blockbuster, A Man in Full. The reading was held in midtown Manhattan, at Town Hall. The hopeful woman was vintage Wolfe - circa 1987 The Bonfire of The Vanities - what he might have categorized as a "lemon meringue".

She found company in other Bonfire types. Sprinkled throughout the two-tiered theatre, seated to three-fifths capacity, were Social X-Rays (who appeared to have looked "inward" in the 1990s) and second-rung Sherman McCoys.

Publisher Roger Strauss introduced the diminutive Wolfe as "Our man in full!" The crowd, affluent denizens of Manhattan, intoned a collective "Mmmm" to indicate how meaningful the scribe of social mores has been to them.

Such satisfied sounds and chuckles were just the sort of sanctimony Wolfe would have mocked when he was a scabrous, 1960's New Journalist punching holes in Radical Chic. Now, the 68-year-old writer descended upon the stage and just basked in the overstated appreciation.

"Here in the North East, the most conspicuous consumption is the private jet," he said, rubbing his small, bony hands together. His hands are the colour of his face, abalone and pink. "Then I saw a quail plantation," he said, introducing the pastime of many of his Deep Southern New Rich characters who gallop after quail tail for a season on 30,000-acre farms.

To read from his book, about a crass, racist Southern CEO who takes a fall, Wolfe donned white reading glasses, no, freakishly expensive "eyewear". He was also wearing his customary two-toned shoes and his hand-tailored, cream-coloured, double-breasted serge suit and waistcoat. Indeed, Wolfe's sartorial sense remains the perfect detail for profiles, serving both the writer of this month's Wolfe cover-story in Time (in the weeks before a national election) and the one that followed in the New York Times.

Also in the New York Times this week was an exultantly favourable review by Michael Lewis, bestselling author of Liar's Poker and other titles. Sure enough, Lewis showed up for the reading, sitting in the front row dressed in tweed jacket and khakis, beaming at the writer of a book he declared to be "too fine to dwell on its weaknesses. Too fine, and too long in the making ... How sad to think of the world without some book by Tom Wolfe in the works," Lewis penned. "And how dull!"

Seated beside Lewis was MTV VJ Tabitha Soren. She listened, rapt, to Wolfe's grain-fine details about American banks. This is the sort of painstaking detail that can make Wolfe seem diabolical in his omniscience: A Man in Full lists everything, from the insignia on the rugs and tea cups to the name of the banking industry's favourite florists.

Tabitha was starting to look a bit bored, registering generational impatience by marking the vertical base of Wolfe's stage with the heels of her thigh- high leather boots. Lewis, meanwhile, smiled up at Wolfe as if his finger were touching God's. Perhaps he was thinking, "I am your forebear but I, unlike you, was once actually a financier."

The rest of the crowd simply mbibed Wolfe's storytelling. They particularly liked Wolfe's racial humour, his ribald Southern accent ("U-nited States"; "Disss-graaace") and that his book focuses on the preoccupation he shares with both his audience and Lewis: money.

As his fans poured out of the Town Hall after the reading, they seemed like an index of Wolfe's life reversal. A writer once inseparable from youth could now summon only the most suspect under-thirties - the young of Money: the editorial assistants waiting to marry money, the self-starters making it on Wall Street, and a smattering of libertarian rock critics.