I avoided reading Tom Wolfe for some time because of his fifth-grade reaction to criticism from John Updike (whom I love), John Irving (whom I like), and Norman Mailer (whom I've never read). So now that I'm finally reading Bonfire of the Vanities, I'm wondering if their criticism was fair.
Updike said that Wolfe's "A Man in Full still amounts to entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form. Like a movie desperate to recoup its bankers' investment, the novel tries too hard to please us." Updike is usually not such a bloodthirsty critic; in my fairly extensive reading of his nonfiction, I've been struck by how magnanimous he is, always trying to find good things about books he doesn't like. So I'm going to assume that either (a) He really, really hates A Man in Full; or (b) He is somehow personally threatened by Tom Wolfe.
Mailer was a little more veiled in his criticism, calling Wolfe ""the most gifted best-seller writer to come along since Margaret Mitchell" and coyly noting that "Extraordinarily good writing forces one to contemplate the uncomfortable possibility that Tom Wolfe might yet be seen as our best writer. How grateful one can feel then for his failures and his final inability to be great--his absence of truly large compass."
I'm going to avoid dealing with Updike's criticism of Wolfe, mostly because doing so would involve defining "literature," which Updike is probably happy to do but which I am not. But I think Mailer is on to something here. Bonfire is enormous, fiction (or literature, whatever) on a grand scale--other critics have noted a similarity to Dickens (as they have with Irving), and that's fair enough. But at the beginning, the book gave me the impression that it will be a Percyan novel ideas, wrapping Wolfe's wordy prose around guilt and sin and bigotry and a million other issues.
But Wolfe can't control this for long; like Mailer, I think he lacks a "truly large compass." Less than halfway through, Bonfire of the Vanities turns into a potboiler, plot-driven and hurried. That doesn't make it bad--it just makes it less permanently interesting. It's a page-turner, but I don't think I'm going to remember much about it next year. On the other hand, other than its length, the novel is custom-made for a film adaptation, whereas something like Lancelot is less immediately engrossing but has more permanent value, at least for me.
The same is true of Irving, although I'll argue that Irving's prose is better-written. Lisa Simpson introduces Wolfe to Moe the Bartender by saying "He uses more exclamation points than any other living author." I'll vouch for that and add to it, elipses. Nearly every paragraph features ten-plus exclamation points and at least five aggravating dot-dot-dots. In this, he reminds me of that most overrated of 19th-century authors, Edgar Allan Poe (who himself plays a minor role in Bonfire of the Vanities). I come close to hating Poe, and I hate him because of the stagy melodrama of his prose. Like Wolfe, he's plot-driven, despite his fan base's concerted attempts to prove otherwise, and like Wolfe, he's a fan of exclamation points, italics, and dashes. Too many of Poe's short stories end with a frenzied interjection: "I had walled the monster up within the tomb!"; "[he]--was the man that was used up"; "These are the full, and the black, and the wild eyes--of my lost love--of the lady--of the LADY LIGEIA!" It's the stuff of B-grade horror films, and it's no wonder Vincent Price adapted so many Poe stories.
Wolfe is better than Poe, though. While he cannot sustain a philosophical theme through the course of his enormous novel, he at least has grand ambitions (I am still not convinced E.A.P. did), and his prose is never less than enjoyable, while any trip through Poe is like slogging through the streams of vomit and urine that so populate his stories. Literature? Who cares? Cohesive? Probably not. But Wolfe's worth reading--if not for the questions he halfheartedly raises . . . then at least for the way he ignores them!