From the Publisher
"No one is as good as Wolfe on the contradictions between cushy class and angry consciousness . . . There essays . . . offer a lively picture of the surface of our society' one wishes life were this interesting." -Jack Beatty, The Nation
"This book serves as a reminder of how often Wolfe's refusal to be respectful toward any subject has produced both illumination and laughter." -Time
"Mr. Wolfe tackles all sorts of subjects ranging from life on an aircraft carrier (brilliantly described) to the goings-on at a convention of National Enquirer freelance writers . . . The master of trivia also offers an underlying theme in his essays and stories: the enormous gap (as he perceives it) between the intellectuals' negative view of America and the positive reality." -Roger Ricklefs, The Wall Street Journal
"It's all right here! Again! The wicked maestro has done it again!" -Tom Nolan, The Los Angeles Times Book Review
Read an Excerpt
Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine
The well-known American writer . . . but perhaps it's best not to say exactly which well-known American writer . . . they're a sensitive breed! The most ordinary comments they take personally! And why would the gentleman we're about to surprise be any exception? He's in his apartment, a seven-room apartment on Riverside Drive, on the West Side of Manhattan, in his study, seated at his desk. As we approach from the rear, we notice a bald spot on the crown of his head. It's about the size of a Sunshine Chip-a-Roo cookie, this bald spot, freckled and toasty brown. Gloriously suntanned, in fact. Around this bald spot swirls a corona of dark-brown hair that becomes quite thick by the time it completes its mad Byronic rush down the back over his turtleneck and out to the side in great bushes over his ears. He knows the days of covered ears are numbered, because this particular look has become somewhat Low Rent. When he was coming back from his father's funeral, half the salesmen lined up at O'Hare for the commuter flights, in their pajama-striped shirts and diamond-print double-knit suits, had groovy hair much like his. And to think that just six years ago such a hairdo seemed . . . so defiant!
Meeting his sideburns at mid-jowl is the neck of his turtleneck sweater, an authentic Navy turtleneck, and the sweater tucks into his Levi's, which are the authentic Original XX Levi's, the original straight stovepipes made for wearing over boots. He got them in a bona fide cowhand's store in La Porte, Texas, during his trip to Houston to be the keynote speaker in a lecture series on "The American Dream: Myth and Reality." No small part of thelatter was a fee of two thousand dollars plus expenses. This outfit, the Navy turtleneck and the double-X Levi's, means work & discipline. Discipline! as he says to himself every day. When he puts on these clothes, it means that he intends to write, and do nothing else, for at least four hours. Discipline, Mr. Wonderful!
But on the desk in front of him--that's not a manuscript or even the beginnings of one . . . that's last month's bank statement, which just arrived in the mail. And those are his canceled checks in a pile on top of it. In that big ledger-style checkbook there (the old-fashioned kind, serious-looking, with no crazy Peter Max designs on the checks) are his check stubs. And those slips of paper in the promiscuous heap are all unpaid bills, and he's taking the nylon cover off his Texas Instruments desk calculator, and he is about to measure the flow, the tide, the mad sluice, the crazy current of the money that pours through his fingers every month and which is now running against him in the most catastrophic manner, like an undertow, a riptide, pulling him under--
--him and this apartment, which cost him $75,000 in 1972; $20,000 cash, which came out of the $25,000 he got as a paperback advance for his fourth book, Under Uncle's Thumb, and $536.36 a month in bank-loan payments (on the $55,000 he borrowed) ever since, plus another $390 a month in so-called maintenance, which has steadily increased until it is now $460 a month . . . and although he already knows the answer, the round number, he begins punching the figures into the calculator . . . 536.36 plus . . . 460 . . . times 12 . . . and the calculator keys go chuck chuck chuck chuck and the curious little orange numbers, broken up like stencil figures, go trucking across the black path of the display panel at the top of the machine, giving a little orange shudder every time he hits the plus button, until there it is, stretching out seven digits long--11956.32--$12,000 a year! One thousand dollars a month--this is what he spends on his apartment alone!--and by May he will have to come up with another $6,000 so he can rent the house on Martha's Vineyard again chuck chuck chuck chuck and by September another $6,750--$3,750 to send his daughter, Amy, to Dalton and $3,000 to send his son, Jonathan, to Collegiate (on those marvelous frog-and-cricket evenings up on the Vineyard he and Bill and Julie and Scott and Henry and Herman and Leon and Shelly and the rest, all Media & Lit. people from New York, have discussed why they send their children to private schools, and they have pretty well decided that it is the educational turmoil in the New York public schools that is the problem--the kids just wouldn't be educated!--plus some considerations of their children's personal safety--but--needless to say!--it has nothing to do with the matter of . . . well, race) and he punches that in . . . 6750 . . . chuck chuck chuck chuck . . . and hits the plus button . . . an orange shimmer . . . and beautiful! there's the figure--the three items, the apartment in town, the summer place, and the children's schooling--$24,706.32!--almost $25,000 a year in fixed costs, just for a starter! for lodging and schooling! nothing else included! A grim nut!
It's appalling, and he's drowning, and this is only the beginning of it, just the basic grim nut--and yet in his secret heart he loves these little sessions with the calculator and the checks and the stubs and the bills and the marching orange numbers that stretch on and on . . . into such magnificently huge figures. It's like an electric diagram of his infinitely expanding life, a scoreboard showing the big league he's now in. Far from throwing him into a panic, as they well might, these tote sessions are one of the most satisfying habits he has. A regular vice! Like barbiturates! Calming the heart and slowing the respiration! Because it seems practical, going over expenses, his conscience sanctions it as a permissible way to avoid the only thing that can possibly keep him afloat: namely, more writing . . . He's deep into his calculator trance now . . . The orange has him enthralled. Think of it! He has now reached a stage in his life when not only a $1,000-a-month apartment but also a summer house on an island in the Atlantic is an absolute necessity--precisely that, absolute necessity . . . It's appalling!--and yet it's the most inexplicable bliss!--nothing less.
As for the apartment, even at $1,000 a month it is not elegant. Elegance would cost at least twice that. No, his is an apartment of a sort known as West Side Married Intellectual. The rooms are big, the layout is good, but the moldings, cornices, covings, and chair rails seem to be corroding. Actually, they are merely lumpy from too many coats of paint over the decades, and the parquet sections in the floor have dried out and are sprung loose from one another. It has been a long time since this apartment has had an owner who could both meet the down-payment nut and have the woodwork stripped and the flooring replaced. The building has a doorman but no elevator man, and on Sundays the door is manned by a janitor in gray khaki work clothes. But what's he supposed to do? He needs seven rooms. His son and daughter now require separate bedrooms. He and his wife require a third one (a third and fourth if the truth be known, but he has had to settle for three). He now needs, not just likes, this study he's in, a workroom that is his exclusively. He now needs the dining room, which is a real dining room, not a dogleg off the living room. Even if he is giving only a cocktail party, it is . . . necessary that they (one & all) note--however unconsciously--that he does have a dining room!
Right here on his desk are the canceled checks that have come in hung over from the cocktail party he gave six weeks ago. They're right in front of him now . . . $209.60 to the florists, Clutter & Vine, for flowers for the hallway, the living room, the dining room, and the study, although part of that, $100, was for a bowl of tightly clustered silk poppies that will become a permanent part of the living-room decor . . . $138.18 to the liquor store (quite a bit was left over, however, meaning that the bar will be stocked for a while) . . . $257.50 to Mauve Gloves & Madmen, the caterers, even though he had chosen some of the cheaper hors d'oeuvres. He also tipped the two butlers $10 each, which made him feel a little foolish later when he learned that one of them was co-owner of Mauve Gloves & Madmen . . . $23.91 to the grocery store for he couldn't remember what . . . $173.95 to the Russian Tea Room for dinner afterward with Henry and Mavis (the guests of honor) and six other stragglers . . . $12.84 for a serving bowl from Bloomingdale's . . . $20 extra to the maid for staying on late . . . and he's chucking all these figures into the calculator chuck chuck chuck chuck blink blink blink blink truck truck truck truck the slanted orange numbers go trucking and winking across the panel . . . 855.98 . . . $855.98 for a cocktail party!--not even a dinner party!--appalling!--and how slyly sweet . . .