Tom Wolfe's latest nonfiction work, "Hooking Up," and Alice Adams' final novel
Some Delicious Wolfe Commentary Thirty-five years ago, "hooking up" was something you did to hear music. "I'll stop by after work and we'll hook up your new speakers." Fifteen years ago, it meant getting together. "We can hook up this weekend, if you're not busy." According to Tom Wolfe, if you're a kid today, "hooking up" means sexual congress. And "first base" means playing tonsil hockey, "second base" means what happened in the Oval Office and "third base" means getting it on or, to bring this full circle, "hooking up." Wolfe, who defined "the new journalism" for us in the early '70s, is still practicing it well in "Hooking Up" (Farrar Straus Giroux, $25), in essays ranging from "Hooking Up: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the Second Millennium" in which he explains the present for those who'll celebrate in A.D. 3000 to "Two Young Men Who Went West" where he relates the history of the transistor and the computer chip in engaging detail. There follows a polemic titled "My Three Stooges" Wolfe's answer to various of his literary critics that doubles as a snappy criticism of the state of the novel today. But the two most delicious pieces of writing in "Hooking Up" come at the end and, conveniently, show off both aspects of Wolfe's writing ability. The first, a work of fiction, a novella, is "Ambush at Fort Bragg." It's the inside story of an elaborate television sting, set up by a prime-time newsmagazine to nab three redneck homophobes stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. The second, a legendary nonfiction piece originally written for New York magazine in 1965 but never before reprinted, is a razor-sharp, stinging profile of William Shawn, who was then the editor of The New Yorker. It solidified Wolfe's reputation in the literary world as a young Turk with a tongue as barbed as it was facile and delectably different. Wolfe has been publishing books since 1965, beginning with "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby." His most recent novel was "A Man in Full," published in 1998. He is a native of Richmond, attended St. Christopher's, Washington and Lee University and Yale. He now lives in New York. Don DaleThe Last Alice Adams "After the War" (Knopf, $25) by Alice Adams has a flaw. It tries too hard to please. In Pinehill, a town in the "middle south," the characters vacillate between what they know is right and what their fat, prejudiced neighbors will say about it. Adams alternately idealizes and mocks her characters as they learn to cope with the barnacles formed of prior generations' beliefs. The novel's core characters are Cynthia Baird, unfaithful wife, and her daughter's friend Melanctha Byrd. Melanctha is a freshman at Radcliffe. It is the late 1940s, and romance is paired with irony. Young men in uniform stroll the streets of Cambridge where Melanctha, a white girl named for a Gertrude Stein character, wishes that Benny Davis, a "Negro" whom she has heard described as "very handsome," will call her up. "A couple of times in the yard, she had seen a tall, handsome, medium-dark Negro boy, and at those times her vulnerable heart had leapt up, and she thought, Ben Davis, Abby's friend. But she couldn't exactly run up to him and ask, 'Are you Benny Davis?' Suppose he wasn't, and of course he would know why she thought it might have been." Adams, herself a Radcliffe alumna, portrays Melanctha's relationship with Cynthia with tenderness. Cynthia, a Connecticut "Yankee," befriends Melanctha and hears through the young woman the story of a black man falsely accused of murder. The tale takes the back seat to Cynthia and Melanctha's relationship, however, as Melanctha learns to speak to Cynthia as an adult. Adams wrote several nonfiction books about race, and perhaps found justification in her research for setting up her own brand of affirmative action in "After the War." The black characters win medals for saving lives, contribute considerable expertise to their employers' undertakings, and become trusted friends. WASPy characters, on the contrary, either have warts aplenty or simply do not want to cause a stir. It's too bad that Adams oversimplifies along color lines. Only the author's effortless style and resolute light touch can redeem her romanticized vision. As World War II rages in the background, Cynthia, Abby and Melanctha confront racism and their inherited share in it while experimenting with love and sex. Adams's last novel before her death in 1999, "After the War" is digestible, contemporary and slyly readable from the first. Ann BaylissHeads-Up: Susan Crater, co-author of "Sister, The Life of the Legendary American Interior Decorator, Mrs. Henry Parish II" (St Martin's Press, $35) will sign the book at Paper Plus, 5804 Grove Ave., Saturday, Nov. 11, from 10 a.m. until 5. p.m. "Sister" has been highly praised and was included in the New York Times Book Review "And Bear in Mind" list for three weeks.
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