Monday, March 24, 2008

Books: Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, by Tom Wolfe

This isn't Wolfe at his best, but Wolfe is generally pretty good, even when he's lazy. Not that these two essays are lazy, exactly, but somehow (and it might simply come down to a personal preference of mine with regard to essay content) they aren't as gripping as those contained in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby and other volumes.

Radical Chic is definitely the better of the two, describing in great name-dropping detail a party thrown by Leonard Bernstein and his wife for the Black Panthers, to help them fund raise. All of the New York liberal intelligentsia attended, ready to throw money at this violent, revolutionary cause, and Wolfe plainly lays out the before, the during, and the aftermath: a PR backlash criticizing these wealthy liberals for demonstrating their hipness by throwing a party in honor of a bunch of bigoted killers (rightfully so, Wolfe seems to think, without telling us that outright).

Mau-mauing the Flack Catchers also approaches the topic of race, and less gingerly. The scene this time is a government office, in which a bureaucrat is approached by a group of Blacks, Hispanics, Filipinos, and, most frighteningly (to him, of course) Samoans. These people are there to demand more summer jobs for the district (something over which this office seems to have some but not much control), but ultimately, they get much more satisfaction out of scaring the bejeezus out of him by shouting and making a scene (this threatening without making good is the mau-mauing, the man, whose sole purpose is to catch flak while the boss is out in Washington lobbying for more funding, is the flak catcher). The laziness here, I think, is not in Wolfe's writing, but in his intellectual conclusion—a bit of a cliche, and a racist one at that.

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