Thursday, March 27, 2008

Books: The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby, by Tom Wolfe

Before I requested it from the library, I thought that this was a chronicle in the vein of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but it turned out to be a volume of essays on a variety of topics comprising 1960s Americana (kind of like 25 mini Acid Tests). My only real experience in essay reading comes from my devotion to David Foster Wallace, whose volumes of essays originally published in magazines like Harper's and Esquire are the contemporary versions of this volume. They're great (both Wallace and Wolfe, but we're discussing Wolfe here): absolutely fantastic.

Wolfe catalogs the ephemera that constitutes America via the microcosms of cars (hot-rodding, customizing, drag racing, demolition derbies), fame (Baby Jane Holzer, Phil Spector, Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, and the Beatles (and the Stones, indirectly)), and style (tight pants, big hair, "decal" eye makeup, and dances like The Mashed Potatoes and The Monkey) from the point of view of the innocent bystander, tossed about in the flotsam and jetsam, part confused but mostly delighted; he registers this delight in everything-but-the-kitchen-sink lists of everything that he sees, creating a kind of transparency and putting the reader right there in the middle of it.

Essay-reading can become tedious when the essayist uses his topic as a platform from which to spout about his personal philosophies, and continually "steps back" to analyze whatever it is that he's writing about. Wolfe never does this. It seems his only personal philosophy is "Wow—Aren't people neat?!" and all he has to do to prove it is to faithfully describe (with infectious excitement) all of the crazy things going on around him. It's not that he's non-thinking; he's more non-judging (even though we can tell he feels a smidgen of disdain for the girls with the tight pants and big hair); mostly, he's just fascinated, and he makes us fascinated as well.

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