A caveat on the great Tom Wolfe

George Weigel

When the great Tom Wolfe died on May 14 — he of the white suits, the spats, and the prose style as exuberant as his wardrobe — I, like millions of others, remembered the many moments of pleasure I had gotten from his work.

My Wolfe-addiction began on a cross-country flight in 1979, shortly after The Right Stuff was published. Always an airplane and space nut, I was fascinated by Wolfe’s re-creation of the culture of America’s test pilots and astronauts at the height of the Cold War. And there was that extraordinarily vivid writing. At one point I burst out laughing, scaring the daylights of the elderly lady sitting next to me but not daring to show her the passage — it must have involved Pancho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club, a saloon outside Edwards Air Force Base — that set me off.

After The Right Stuff got me going on Tom Wolfe, it was impossible to stop. The first half of Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers — Wolfe’s scathing account of a reception thrown for the Black Panthers by Leonard and Felicia Bernstein — remains the quintessential smack-down of political correctness among the 1% cultural elites. From Bauhaus to Our House explains why anyone with an aesthetic sense thinks something is seriously wrong with modernist architecture, and does so in a way that makes you laugh rather than cry.

Then there was Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. One of its chapters, “The Masque of the Red Death,” takes its title from Edgar Allan Poe and with mordant humor dissects the vacuity of Manhattanites consumed (and in some cases destroyed) by their grotesque, over-the-top consumerism. I recently re-read that stunning set-piece and the thought occurred, as it had before, that it was a far more effective polemic against materialism than anything ever issued by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Bonfire was also brilliant in skewering the destructiveness of New York’s race hustlers, the obtuseness of a values-free media, and the fecklessness of too many politicians.

Asked once by monks who run a prestigious prep school what they might do to disabuse parents of the notion that their sons were doomed if they didn’t get into Harvard, Duke, Stanford, and the like, I suggested giving a copy of I Am Charlotte Simmons to the parents of every incoming senior. Wolfe’s fictional tale of life on elite American university campuses in the 21st century is a sometimes-jarring exercise in the social realism practiced (a bit less brutally) by Dickens and Balzac. But Charlotte Simmons, like Wolfe’s other fiction, has a serious moral core and an important cultural message. The young innocent, the brightest girl in town who makes it to an elite university, gets corrupted by stages: and her moral corruption is preceded by intellectual corruption — the class in which she’s taught that there’s really nothing properly called “the truth.”

I do have one post-mortem caveat to register about Tom Wolfe’s oeuvre, which takes me back to The Right Stuff (and while we’re on that subject again, forget the inane movie). The central figure in Wolfe’s tale of aeronautical daring-do is Chuck Yeager, the man who first broke the “sound barrier” in the Bell X-1, and did so with a couple of broken ribs, which he managed in flight with the aid of a sawed-off broom handle. Yeager was an extraordinary figure who never became a national celebrity because of the (absurd) news blackout surrounding the X-1 project, and Wolfe clearly wanted to pay tribute to him as an unsung American hero.

To do so, however, Tom Wolfe seemed to think he needed a foil, and he cast astronaut Gus Grissom in that role: “L’il Gus,” the Hoosier grit lampooned as a bumbler to make Yeager look even better. And that was a grave disservice to the memory of Virgil I. Grissom, who did not mess up the second Mercury space flight (Wolfe’s account notwithstanding), and who gave his life for his country in the launch pad fire that consumed Apollo 1 — which Grissom knew to be a deeply flawed spacecraft and had urged NASA to improve.

So now that Tom Wolfe and Gus Grissom have both crossed what Wolfe once called the Halusian Gulp, I hope these two American patriots are reconciled. Both had the right stuff.

COMING UP: A pastor in full

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Almost a quarter-century ago, Father Jay Scott Newman, back in Rome to finish a graduate degree after his priestly ordination in Charleston, took me on an extended ramble around the Eternal City: my first hike up the Aventine; my first visit to the crown jewel of paleo-Christian architecture, Santa Sabina; my first exploration of Santa Maria in Cosmedin – and, later in the evening, some essential instruction as to what you don’t put on a pasta dish featuring seafood (hint: a certain hard cheese). I had a grand time but little idea then of the impact Father Newman would have on my life and work in the future. Now, as he celebrates the silver jubilee of his priestly ordination, it’s time to do some of what our evangelical Protestant friends would call “witnessing.”

It was Father Newman to whom I turned in 1997, when I had to construct a comprehensive outline for what would become the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope; and it was Father Newman who graciously hosted me in his rectory in Hanahan, South Carolina, as I figured out, schematically, how I was going to ride the biographical tiger, rather than it riding me.

It’s Father Newman I’ve called on hundreds of occasions to share a joke, commiserate over some ecclesiastical folly or another, or just blow off steam; he’s always there, and he’s always helpful.

It was at Father Newman’s current parish, St. Mary’s in Greenville, South Carolina, that I launched Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church – which was entirely appropriate because the first part of the book is really his, as it draws on conversations we had had in his rectory, and on his experience of living the New Evangelization in what was once the thoroughly Protestant Bible Belt. America is blessed with many great parishes (a facet of our ecclesial life one wishes were better appreciated in Rome). I know of none better than St. Mary’s in Greenville, where the entire parish is, as Pope Francis urges, “permanently in mission,” empowered by biblically-rich preaching, nurtured by a beautiful and prayerful liturgy that embodies Vatican II’s liturgical reform at its finest, and led by a pastor who makes evangelization a priority.

It’s been my privilege to know many fine priests over some seven decades. They have taught me, inspired me, chastised me, and, I trust, sanctified me. And I count many exceptionally gifted priests as good friends today. None of them will mind, I hope, if I say on this anniversary that Father Newman has lived the priesthood of the New Evangelization in a singular way. The invitation to his anniversary celebrations was headlined, “Where Did Twenty-Five Years Go?” I have some ideas of where they went, and I’d like to share them.

They went into honing a first-rate mind. The current concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra once told me that, when he and Scott Newman were growing up in North Carolina, Scott “was the smartest kid in the state.” Over the past twenty-five years, those intellectual gifts have been used deepen a priestly understanding of the Paschal Mystery, which a young Scott Newman first experienced at Princeton during his early undergraduate years – an experience that would eventually take him far beyond the atheism he once thought appropriate to the intellectually serious.

A well-tuned intellect has, in turn, been refined by a priestly heart. Long before “accompaniment” became a Catholic buzzword, Father Newman demonstrated how to walk with the souls in his pastoral care, be they cadets at The Citadel, rural folk, or the educated and accomplished parishioners he’s formed into missionary disciples in Greenville. The confessional has played a large role in his pastoral life and his priestly maturation, and those he has taken under spiritual direction have much for which to be grateful.

And those 25 years have been spent in pondering and then implementing a grand strategy for the Church in America in the 21st century. Inspired by John Paul II’s Redemptoris Missio, Father Newman dubbed this program “Evangelical Catholicism” and then brought it to vibrant life in his parish. Pastors interested in seeing how the New Evangelization is done right, in challenging cultural circumstances, should spend a week at St. Mary’s Greenville.

Ecce sacerdos magnus qui in diebus suis placuit Deo. (Translation and appropriate musical settings available on request.) Ad multos annos!