[Paleopsych] Sailer: Tom Wolfe: Clear Eye For The Different Human
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Wed Feb 2 22:18:09 UTC 2005
Tom Wolfe: Clear Eye For The Different Human
Steve Sailer Archive
Tom Wolfe--Clear Eye For The Different Human
By Steve Sailer
With the 1979 publication of The Right Stuff, a brilliant
non-fiction account of the men involved in the Mercury program,
Tom Wolfe completed a titanic decade and a half in which he
revolutionized American journalism.
He then set off to become the greatest satirical-realist novelist in
the English language since his idol, Evelyn Waugh. With his third
novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, he has attained that goal.
It's the story of a brilliant hillbilly virgin's first half year at
Dupont U. (primarily Duke U., where Wolfe's daughter Alexandra
graduated in 2002) and the three seniors she attracts--Hoyt, the
George W. Bush-like alcoholic frat boy; Adam, the nice but dorky
intellectual; and JoJo, the only white starter on the NCAA champion
I like to think that, in discussing human differences frankly, Wolfe
violates many of the same taboos that I do. For example, I frequently
defend sensible athletes like Larry Bird, Paul Hornung, Dusty
Baker or the late Reggie White from politically-correct
sportswriters who want to lynch them for telling the truth about the
link between racial differences in physique and sport success. And
in his latest book, Wolfe parodies the tired spin on an ESPN talk
"... four poorly postured middle-aged white sportswriters sat slouched
in little, low-backed, smack-red fiberglass swivel chairs
panel-discussing the 'sensitive' matter of the way black players
dominated basketball. 'Look,' the well-known columnist Maury Feldtree
was saying, his chin resting on a pasha's cushion of jowls, `just
think about it for a second. Race, ethnicity, all that--that's just a
symptom of something else. There's been whole cycles of different
minorities using sports as a way out of the ghetto.'"
But Wolfe makes clear the obvious reason: Even the best white players,
such as the 6'-10" 250 pound JoJo, generally are inferior in
musculature to the best black players--such as the freshman power
forward Vernon Congers, with "his mighty pecs, delts, traps, and
lats," who is threatening to take his job.
Wolfe has been noticing racial differences in muscularity at least
since Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers back in 1970. There he noted
that white poverty program bureaucrats feared the hard-muscled black
protestors, but were less afraid of the Mexicans and not at all scared
of the Chinese.
The Samoans, however, left them dumbfounded:
"Have you ever by any chance seen professional football players in
person, like on the street? The thing you notice is not just that
they're big but that they are so big, it's weird... From the ears
down, the big yoyos are just one solid welded hulk, the size of an oil
burner... Well, that will give you some idea of the Samoans, because
they're bigger. The average Samoan makes Bubba Smith of the Colts
look like a shrimp. They start out at about 300 pounds and from there
they just get wider."
Although there were no Samoans in the National Football League when
Wolfe wrote this, today there are dozens.
"A Samoan boy, according to estimates, is 40 times more likely to
make it to the NFL than a boy from the mainland," writes Greg
As in his 1998 Atlanta-based novel A Man in Full, Wolfe's new
book drives the conventionally-minded crazy by ignoring his
characters' facial features in favor of the visible markers of their
muscle to fat ratios. He rightly sees that these indicate the hormones
driving their behavior.
Indeed, Wolfe's book is so "hormono-centric" (as he puts it) that I
can guesstimate the body fat percentages of all his new novel's
Using PBS fitness expert Covert Bailey's table of recommendations
for his clients, I'd say that lovely Charlotte is 22% body fat, while
her snobbish and nearly-anorexic roommate Beverly is 16%. Exploited
Adam is 21%, handsome Hoyt with his six-pack abs is 11%, jacked-up
JoJo 9%, and virile Vernon 5%.
Similarly, one of Wolfe's most important but least popular themes is
In his previous novel, Tom Wolfe describes how a high IQ corporate
staffer, known as The Wiz, views his lower IQ boss, Charlie
Croker, real estate developer, good old boy, and ex-football star
"with a back like a Jersey Bull:"
"The Wiz looked upon [Croker] as an aging, uneducated, and out-of-date
country boy who had somehow, nonetheless, managed to create a large,
and, until recently, wildly successful corporation. That the country
boy, with half his brainpower, should be the lord of the corporation
and that [the Wiz] should be his vassal was an anomaly, a perversity
of fate. . . . Or part of him felt that way. The other part of him was
in awe, in unconscious awe, of something the old boy had and he
didn't: namely, the power to charm men and the manic drive to bend
their wills into saying yes to projects they didn't want, didn't need,
and never thought about before... And that thing was manhood. It was
as simple as that."
During my long corporate career, I repeatedly witnessed exactly the
same phenomenon--but putting it so baldly in words leaves most people
Wolfe particularly doesn't win any friends among male reviewers by
pointing out that intellectuals, like Charlotte Simmons' Adam, tend to
be less masculine than jocks like Jo-Jo, who, through sheer sense of
alpha-male entitlement, forces his tutor (Adam) to stay up all night
ghostwriting his history class reports.
Adam Kirsch in the neocon N.Y. Sun was so unhinged by this
that he threatened Wolfe with the neutron bomb of
accusations--anti-Semitism--although Wolfe's wife, the mother of his
three children, is Jewish. (Kirsch got so many of the book's details
wrong that it's hard to tell if he read it or just skimmed, looking
for the naughty bits.)
(Here's another perfect example of a male reviewer--Theo Tait of
the London Review of Books--criticizing Charlotte Simmons for
everything that's true about it.)
Likewise, Wolfe's message to young women--including, presumably, his
daughters--that the tighter rein they keep on their sexual
favors, the more power they have over men--has vastly annoyed the many
women who don't want to be reminded about how they've messed up
their lives by ignoring such advice.
What's most striking about Wolfe's version of Duke U. is how, after 35
years of institutionalized feminism, student sexuality hasn't
progressed into an egalitarian utopia. Instead, it has regressed to
something that a caveman would understand--a Hobbesian sexual
marketplace where muscles are the measure of the man.
This is exactly why I ended my 1997 article "Is Love Colorblind?"
"When, in the names of freedom and feminism, young women listen less
to the hard-earned wisdom of older women about how to pick Mr. Right,
they listen even more to their hormones. This allows cruder measures
of a man's worth--like the size of his muscles--to return to
prominence. The result is not a feminist utopia, but a society in
which genetically gifted guys can more easily get away with acting
like Mr. Wrong."
Wolfe has been ahead of his time for his entire career. Indeed, the
reputation of his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, has
suffered because its plot is now often thought of as a pastiche of
stories ripped from the headlines about Al Sharpton's Tawana
Brawley hoax, the arrest of the bond king Michael Milken, the
Crown Heights anti-Semitic pogrom, the Rodney King riots, and
the O.J. Simpson case.
But Bonfire appeared in 1987 ... before all those events it seemingly
America's most distinguished jurist-intellectual, Richard A. Posner,
has admitted this in his book Overcoming Law:
"When I first read The Bonfire of the Vanities ... it just didn't
strike me as the sort of book that has anything interesting to say
about the law or any other institution.... I now consider that
estimate of the book ungenerous and unperceptive. The Bonfire of the
Vanities has turned out to be a book that I think about a lot, in part
because it describes with such vividness what Wolfe with prophetic
insight (the sort of thing we attribute to Kafka) identified as
emerging problems of the American legal system... American legal
justice today seems often to be found at a bizarre intersection of
race, money, and violence, an intersection nowhere better depicted
than in The Bonfire of the Vanities even thought the book was written
before the intersection had come into view."
Moreover, "Law & Order," perhaps the most successful franchise in
television history, was clearly influenced by Bonfire. Lennie Briscoe,
the late Jerry Orbach's wonderfully sardonic detective, could
have come straight from its pages.
But producer Dick Wolf drained the irony from Tom Wolfe's portrayal of
New York City prosecutors. Bored and depressed by an endless stream of
black and brown lawbreakers, they torture the law to snag a Great
White Defendant. In contrast, on "Law & Order," the abusive
prosecutors who concoct patently nonsensical legal theories to
justify arresting the Park Avenue rich are the heroes.
Although Wolfe resembles Waugh in his conservatism, they differ in
important ways. Waugh was a jealous, cantankerous snob who said
that his Roman Catholic faith was the only thing that kept his
behavior even marginally tolerable. Except when at his writing desk,
Wolfe is a gracious man, perhaps the last of the old-fashioned
Virginia gentlemen. He doesn't seem to feel any personal need for
religion, but strongly approves of it in others.
Waugh used the most elegant English prose imaginable to limn the
tawdriness of modern life. In contrast, Wolfe modeled his prose style
on his subject: the sloppy, vulgar, and exciting America of the
booming second half of the 20th Century. His sentences tended to be
flat and functional, but studded with brilliant phrases. For example,
"Radical Chic," "The Me Decade," and "The Right Stuff" have all become
part of the language.
Over the years, Wolfe's verbal inventiveness faded. But he improved as
a copy-editor of his own prose, reaching a peak in A Man in Full,
which features numerous showstopping set pieces. The chapter "In the
Breeding Barn," a detailed description of the astonishing process by
which thoroughbred racehorses are mated, is the most overwhelming
thing he's ever written. (By nature a prim and private man, Wolfe's
discomfort with writing about sex paradoxically makes his descriptions
of its power so memorable.)
But the quality of Wolfe's writing collapsed over the last 100 pages
of A Man in Full--perhaps due to his open-heart surgery and his
subsequent clinical depression. This left me wondering whether
he'd be able to recover at an age when most people are retired.
Fortunately, in Charlotte Simmons, his prose style is back to a
serviceable level. And his glee over finding this great topic--student
life in a modern university--that nobody important had touched in
decades is palpable.
Additionally, making his main character a teenage girl solves one of
Wolfe's old problems: his fascination with fashion and decorating is
hugely important to his books, but in the manly men he normally writes
about, it always seemed a little, ahem, gay. Like many artistic
geniuses, Wolfe's personality encompasses a wider range of the
masculine to feminine continuum than is common among us mortals. Back
in the 1960s, Wolfe wrote some brilliant essays about fashionable
young women. But then he researched his tremendous account of Navy
pilots in combat over North Vietnam, "The Truest Sport: Jousting
with Sam and Charlie," and became obsessed with male physical courage
(which led to The Right Stuff and much else). He seemed to lose most
of his ability to write about women--leading to the underdeveloped
female characters in his first two novels.
But his Charlotte is a painfully accurate depiction of a how young
woman typically feels: i.e., acutely self-conscious. Wolfe has become
the Beethoven of embarrassment. He orchestrates thunderous climaxes of
social mortification every few pages.
Although some have called I am Charlotte Simmons a can't-put-it-down
book, personally, I had to put it down every 15 minutes or so. I felt
so bad for the young characters as they heartbreakingly learn how the
Wolfe has been accused of lacking sympathy for his creations. But his
empathy is infinite.
As with Waugh, who was mostly dismissed as a dyspeptic middlebrow
entertainer until after his death, it will likely be several decades
before Wolfe's greatness as a novelist is uncontroversial.
Maybe that will be when we are also allowed to be honest about the
reality of human differences.
[Steve Sailer [email him], is founder of the Human Biodiversity
Institute and movie critic for The American Conservative. His
website www.iSteve.com features site-exclusive commentaries.]
70. mailto:steveslr at aol.com
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