Is Wolfe trying too hard to prove his authority and credibility?

Hilda Hei Nam Leung '05, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

In The Pump House Gang, Tom Wolfe introduces his readers to the teen-age California surf cults. The author's tone sometimes belongs to that of a ventriloquist for the youth, articulating the groups' minds and perception. It sometimes belongs to that of an insider who thinks and talks like the gang's members. We see the author's effort to convince his readers that he is qualified to depict this subset of a small community. After all, wouldn't his skeptical readers ask the question: How can Tom Wolfe, a forty-five year old man from North Carolina, be qualified to tell us about young Californian surfers? It seems that Wolfe constantly proves his credibility and qualification, and demonstrates his adequate knowledge of the subculture, such as, by imitating their speech and resurrecting slang and idiomatic expressions.

Tom Coman lights a cigarette and says, "Let's have a destructo." A destructo is what can happen in a garage after eight or 10 surfers are kicked out of it.

"Mee-dah!"

"Wouldn't it be bitchen?" says Tom Coman. Bitchen is a surfer's term that means "great," usually.

"Bitchen!"

"Mee-dah!" [p. 24]

Here, Wolfe resurrects a dialogue between Tom Coman and his gang, which includes a few unfamiliar expressions. However, after every phrase, Wolfe abruptly breaks away from the dialogue and, like a dictionary or a footnote, educates his readers on the specific expression of which he is very knowledgeable.

Questions

1. How does Wolfe establish his authority and credibility?

2. Would you, as a reader, prefer to realize what does 'destructo' and 'bitchen' mean in a gradual way and from context, or to be educated by Wolfe's encyclopedic footnote? Would a reader feel uncomfortable because Wolfe presents himself as being knowledgeable and therefore superior?

3. To what extent is Wolfe successful in recreating or imitating the spoken language of the gang? For example, his frequent/excessive usage of the word 'practically' suitable? (such as "cash-it's practically in the air" [p. 25], "he must be practically 50 years old (p. 21), "everybody, practically everybody, comes from a good family" (p. 26). If a modern writer wants to imitate how kids talk nowadays, is it enough for him to simply add "hey man" into the dialogue?

4. Both Didion and Wolfe describe particular groups from the sixties. (bands, student activists, cliques etc) Who is more persuasive?


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Last modified 15 February 2005