“Back in the twentieth century, American girls had used baseball terminology. “First base” referred to embracing and kissing; “second base” referred to groping and fondling…;”third base” referred to fellatio, usually known in polite conversation by the ambiguous term “oral sex”; and “home plate” meant conception-mode intercourse, known familiarity as “going all the way.” In the year 2000, in the era of hooking up, “first base” meant deep kissing(“tonsil hockey”), groping, and fondling; “second base” meant oral sex; “third base” meant going all the way; and “home plate” meant learning each other’s names.”
If this humorous quote is evidence enough, in his essay collection, Hooking Up, seventy-year-old Tom Wolfe wants you to know that times are a’changin in the twenty-first century.
He uses his seasoned societal magnifying glass to shed light on an array of topics including the evolution of semiconductors, predictions about the internet, the possibly dehumanizing goal of neuroscience, and what he interprets as the plight of modern American “intellectuals”. Wolfe brilliantly connects all of these seemingly disparate topics to piece together a cultural composite of America at the turn of the century.
In the book’s best moments, Wolfe is seamlessly flowing through decades of history with the expertise that one of the progenitors of narrative non-fiction or his self-styled “New Journalism” should possess. Wolfe embodies this most in the part entitled “The Human Beast.” Across three essays, he weaves together short but detailed biographies of Bob Noyce, Teilhard De Chardin, Marshall McLuhan, E.O. Wilson and others to illuminate some of the more cosmic implications of technology and science, notably asking, “what happens to the human mind when it comes to itself absolutely?”
In its worst moments, Wolfe sounds like a curmudgeon who thinks that using big words makes him smarter than everyone else. He embodies this most in the essay “In the Land of the Rococo Marxists” where he shuns American academics and “intellectuals” for refusing to see America as the shining city upon a hill with a military that would make Alexander the Great green with envy and economic prosperity that would make monarchs of yesteryear seem middle-class. “Give it up!” Wolfe basically proclaims you don’t have to be a Marxist anymore! Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and the tumbling of the Berlin Wall should’ve been proof enough that communism doesn’t work!
He even had the gall to question the intelligence of Susan Sontag and Noam Chomsky of all people, which of course, only made him look jealous. “Who even is this woman?” This guy is an expert in linguistics what’s he doing talking about the Vietnam War?
But despite this, Hooking Up, is a treasure trove of good writing. I want to write like this when I’m seventy. He’s hilarious, erudite, and stylistically commanding. This was the first of Wolfe’s books I stumbled upon and will certainly not be the last.