“If you are not having a fight with somebody,” Tom Wolfe told The Guardian in 2004, “then you are not sure whether you are alive when you wake up in the morning.”
Mr. Wolfe is famous for his bright-eyed and best-selling books of literary journalism (“The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” in 1968, “The Right Stuff” in 1979) and for jumbo-size social novels like “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1987) and “A Man in Full” (1998). Like an industrial engineer who also makes bespoke dueling pistols in his shed on the weekends, Mr. Wolfe has made a side career of skirmishing with the eminati (his term) in an array of cultural fields. If fighting enlivens one’s mornings, Mr. Wolfe has had little need of caffeine.
He took aim at Modern art and its enabling theorists in “The Painted Word” (1975) and modern architecture and its critical druids in “From Bauhaus to Our House” (1981). In his essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” (1989) he bird-dogged the American literary establishment for its solipsistic retreat from realism. He referred to three of his antagonists — John Updike, Norman Mailer and John Irving — in the title of another essay, published in 2000, as “My Three Stooges.”
Mr. Wolfe’s assaults were not meant to be well received by his entrenched opponents, and indeed they were not. He was tagged as an incorrigible philistine and worse. Few took his more combative books and essays altogether seriously, though they sharpened the conversation. Oddly, little of the stirred mud stuck to him. To recall these contretemps is to freshly appreciate Mr. Wolfe’s cameo appearance in “The Simpsons” when, after Homer smears chocolate on the author’s trademark white suit, Mr. Wolfe yanks it off to reveal an identical clean one underneath.
Mr. Wolfe, now 85, shows no sign of mellowing. His new book, “The Kingdom of Speech,” is his boldest bit of dueling yet. It’s a whooping, joy-filled and hyperbolic raid on, of all things, the theory of evolution, which he finds to be less scientific certainty than “a messy guess – baggy, boggy, soggy and leaking all over the place,” to put it in the words he inserts into the mouths of past genetic theorists.
Read more at NY Times.