Well, to be fair, it’s not an actual interview, but I did chat with the dude for a very brief spell recently at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. It was a book signing for Mr. Wolfe’s latest, I Am Charlotte Simmons, an expose in modern collegiate life that is rife with the social, racial, and class clashes that he is so well known for.
For those of you who may not be familiar with his work, Tom Wolfe has written such classics as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, Bonfire of the Vanities, and A Man in Full. Bonfire is, in my opinion, a masterpiece: it so clearly captures 1980s New York in both its go go capitalist glory and down low gritty underbelly. You can practically smell the Reaganonmics on every page.
Anyway, this was the first time I’ve ever been to a live and in-person book signing with a famous personage. I did attend a reading given by Gary Hart last month, but didn’t stick around for the signing part. In any event, I didn’t really know what to expect. As I got closer to the signing table (there was some other dude sitting next to Mr. Wolfe, probably a publicist of some kind, who had the job of opening the book to the title page and handing it over to the author, which I found interesting) I noticed that Mr. Wolfe was chatty enough with many of the signees. One Asian guy ahead of me had the audacity to ask him if he wanted to join the man for a “real Chinese dinner.” He was serious, too.
I grew bold as my turn came.[Geek Disclaimer: What you are about to read is geeky. You are forewarned. Have a nice day. ~ DB Management]
EB: I was wondering if people ask you about Neal Cassady these days.
TW: They do, occasionally.
EB: The reason I ask is that I’m fascinated by Cassady’s place in Jack Kerouac’s work and his appearance in Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Neal Cassady was written as the character Dean Moriarty in On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. A close friend of Kerouac’s (at least until Kerouac’s later drunken redneck days) he appeared as different characters in many of his works. On the Road, though, is a towering achievement, and I’m always elated to read the early rollicking passages in that book.
Anyway, the events of On the Road took place around 1949 or so. Acid Test takes place sometime in the mid- to late-sixties (not sure exactly) and is of course the real-life depiction of Ken Kesey and his band of “merry pranksters,” real legit hippies in every sense of the word: organizing love-ins and “acid tests” which are designed to open your doors and let the sun shine in, etc. Flower Power all the way, shall we say. They also drove around in a bus and would stop off in staid conservative areas with the idea of “blowing people’s minds” with their audacious counter-culture spirit. Enter Cassady, again. The dude was the driver of that bus, the same bus that was reputedly the inspiration for The Beatle’s “Magical Mystery Tour.” The guy managed to show up at the birth of two of the most important cultural movements of the 20th Century: the beat and hippie movements. It amazes me that more people don’t know about this.
Therefore, I had to ask the TW about it.
TW: Well, Cassady was really a tragic figure. People kept wanting him to be the character that was in On the Road, which caused him to get more and more into speed so that he could be that character, so that he could always be on.
This was great stuff — finally someone connecting the dots, albeit briefly, between these two eras.
TW: But you know, they say Kerouac got his writing style from Cassady.
EB: But he didn’t translate nearly as well to the written page.
TW: That’s true.
I happen to know this as a fact as I own a copy of The First Third, the only book Cassady ever published. He was an interesting guy, but no writer like Kerouac.
And that was that. The guy next to me piped in and asked if Western writer Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, etc.) was part of Kesey’s merry pranksters. Mr. Wolfe said that he was for a time, and then delved into some kind of story that had McMurtry on the lam in Mexico. The part I remember is the best line in which TW, recalling a long-ago meeting of his with McMurtry, said, “Oh… a real live fugitive.”
All in all a very cool experience, and I look forward to delving into Charlotte Simmons. Well, not literally, but you get the picture.
I should note that going to this particular reading/signing was in a sense an homage to a great writer, but also extremely timely as the novel I’m working on is a comedy/mystery that takes place on a college campus. As I told my wife Amy about the exchange with TM on the walk home, we joked about how I could have taken the conversation one step too far, like into “real Chinese dinner” territory, which would have undoubtedly involved me saying, “You know, I’m writing a novel that takes place on a college campus too. Isn’t that nuts?” That being said, it was cool timing all round and will make a great story if (when?) I ever get Possible Ends published.
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