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Dumpster Bust Exclusive: Interview with Tom Wolfe

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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.

For more on this and on every other topic under the sun, check out:

Dumpster Bust: Manufacturing Miracles from Mind Trash, Since 2003

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  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    Neat, very neat – although delving might be the right word with the ‘revirginated’ Charlotte Simmons.

    And was he wearing the snazzy white suit?

    Thanks for the ‘brief encounter’

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Aaman –

    Yep, he wore a classic white suit. No hat that I could see, though.

    He was very polite, friendly, and conversational with everyone.

    By the way, I started I Am Charlotte Simmons… it may not be his best work, but you’ve got to give him credit for trying to get in tune with what kids 50 years his junior are all about. His writing — the pure power of his words — have lost of its force.

    Eric Berlin
    Dumpster Bust: Miracles from Mind Trash
    http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Woah — I meant to write that Mr. Wolfe’s words have lost *none* of their force.

    Sorry.

  • Eric Olsen

    whoa, super cool, thanks E! Added this to the interviews section (it’s “Neal Cassady,” BTW)

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Eric ~

    Thanks very much for adding this to the interview links. I just hope Wolfe’s publicists don’t come after me/us with pitchforks.

    Thanks, too, for making the change to Cassady’s name. There’s no excuse there, especially with The First Third (Cassady’s single published work) sitting on my book shelf!).

    Cheers,
    EB

  • http://www.theblackflag.org rougy

    I never tire of hearing tidbits about Kerouac and the Beats.

    I e-mailed Neil Cassidy’s son back in the late 90’s. He’s in his early 40’s, now. He told me a story of how a guy, I think Pigpen, from the Grateful Dead, ceremoniously gave him a railroad spike that was pulled from the ground where Neil passed away.

    He plays guitar in a little band of his own, and I think he’s a computer guy for some big company in California.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Rougy –

    That’s super cool that you got into contact with Cassady’s son. Any chance you remember the name of his band? It would be a trip just to check it out.

    There are several great biographies/retrospectives on the Beat Era. One of my favorites is Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats (Link: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0805060448/qid=1103441742/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/102-6978679-2813735?v=glance&s=books).

    ~ Eric B.

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    I have a lot I could say about Wolfe and this book, but it’d be piling on.

    All I’ll say is this. Eric Berlin, take a lesson from Wolfe and re-evaluate whether you want to finish writing this book or not based on the following question: are you old?

    There’s nothing worse than books about the young by the old — even the best writers can seem so very out-of-touch.

    There was a great CSPAN2 Book TV forum featuring David Brooks and Christina Hoff Summers on Charlotte Simmons, by the way. I only saw the beginning — anyone watch this?

    That is all.

  • Eric Olsen

    the next time I watch CSPAN2 wil be the second

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    oh dangit, now i’ve got something in common with bob a. booey.

    the cspan2 book forums are great. though one of the first ones i saw, on ‘popular’ books like “the lovely bones”…made want to run right out and buy the book.

    a bad thing? no.

    the reason i wanted the book is that every single reviewer on the panel seemed so jaded and snotty.

    “..when one considers a book such as this, one must wonder if…”

    blah, fricken, blah!

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Bob – Not very old as yet, which is why I feel I’m in a good slot to write about college life. Nonetheless, I set it in the 90s so that I could base it very closely upon my own experiences: mid-grunge, pre-9/11, and so on.

    BTW – I gave Charlotte Simmons about a 6-of-10 review, you can check it out if you’d like.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    I got caught up with CSPAN-2 about a year or year and a half ago. It was when the Dems were filibustering a vote on judicial appointments, and the GOP decided to have a 30-hour non-stop debate on the subject. It was an interesting showcase of democracy and hypocrisy all rolled up in one.

  • http://www.wallybangs.blogspot.com wally bangs

    What I really hate are those books by the young about the old. I had to say it, since the opening was there. But, actually I agree with Bob A Booey.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Wally – I think it takes an author of great skill to write truthfully about any kind of person that is very different / in a different stage of life: other gender, much older / younger, different culture, etc.

    I tend to write mostly about twenty to thirty something guys. It’s who I am and what I know about. Throwing in a love interest is painful for me… I think, What the hell do I know what a woman is thinking, feeling, etc.? I can’t even figure out my own wife half the time.

    So all things considered, it was particularly ballsy of Wolfe to write about a virginal 18-year-old mountain girl going off to college. He deserves some credit for trying to pull it off, at the least.

  • http://www.wallybangs.blogspot.com wally bangs

    I agree, Eric, that it was ballsy by Wolfe to write the book, but I really wish he would just go back to new journalism and write non-fiction. His novels are just too long and filled with mere archetypes instead of characters you could actually picture living and breathing.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Wally, I hear what you’re saying but I still think that so so Wolfe is better than most of the fiction out there. And I would say that Charlotte Simmons is better than so so, more like Good but with Major Caveats. Man in Full was very good, very rich and complex, and Bonfire of the Vanities, in my opinion, was a masterpiece. So he’s batting pretty well on his last three novels, I would say.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    By the way — it took me far longer than it should have to pick up on the fact that Howard Stern’s producer has joined the convo. Nice to have you, Baba Booey.

  • Mark the Sane and Sensible

    “two of the most important cultural movements of the 20th Century: the beat and hippie movements.”

    Egad, Tom Wolfe is a loon. If anything, the beats then the hippie movement were the most damaging to culture in the 20th century because it taught people that it was OK to thumb their nose at traditional mores. What the hell is he smoking? Like HST, Tom Wolfe was a dangerous influence.