for a man whose tastes run to giddy hyperbole and dandified white suits, Tom Wolfe has always played his cards pretty close to the chest. It's been a full decade since "The Bonfire of the Vanities" made him a full-fledged Master of the Universe (Fiction Division), and the author, now 66, has spent most of that time hiding out almost as successfully as Thomas Pynchon. Little is known about Wolfe's long-awaited new novel except that it probably will be titled "Chocolate City," it probably will be set in Atlanta, it probably will delve into the real estate world and Farrar, Straus & Giroux will probably publish it in the fall of 1998. Of course, his publicists add, all of these details are subject to change.
Once a revered New Journalist, Wolfe has an old-school journalist's craving for deadlines: He cranked out a rough draft of "Bonfire of the Vanities" as a 27-part serial for Rolling Stone. Wolfe's fiction found its way into Rolling Stone again last fall when he published, in two consecutive issues, a jagged satire about TV news overkill called "Ambush at Fort Bragg." This wasn't a deadline-driven chunk of "Chocolate City," his publisher explained, but rather a scene that had been jettisoned from the novel because it "didn't fit." Either way, it was good to see Wolfe back in print -- even if "Ambush at Fort Bragg" did often read like the castoff it was. (While it's crammed with Wolfe's trademark brand of loopily aggressive prose, "Ambush" sometimes reads like self-plagiarism: Soldiers are labeled with the awfully familiar-sounding phrase "Lords of Testosterone," and a few felicitous sexual descriptions -- "stiffened giblets," "shanks akimbo" -- are lifted almost verbatim from his earlier work.) Rolling Stone had its hands on some agreeably vicious, if minor, Wolfe.
"Ambush at Fort Bragg" seemed likely to vanish without a trace ... until a surprising series of print ads began appearing earlier this month for "Tom Wolfe's first major work in a decade." The authors' fans had to scan the fine print to find out that, no, this wasn't Wolfe's Big Novel. Instead it was an unabridged audio version of "Ambush" read by the wry young actor Edward Norton ("Primal Fear," "The People vs. Larry Flynt"). It's a release that sets an industry precedent -- no other author of Wolfe's stature has published a novella-length work exclusively on audio -- and it's one that seems oddly in synch with the times. Authors are increasingly seeking untraditional methods of reaching readers, whether it's John Updike hosting a short-story lottery on Amazon.com, Stephen King reviving serial publishing with his paperback series "The Green Mile," or Laura Esquivel including a companion compact disc along with her follow-up to "Like Water for Chocolate."
Wolfe has kept mum about this audio adventure, with the exception of a short statement released by Bantam Doubleday Dell Audio: "Although 'Ambush at Fort Bragg' may be published in book form someday," he said, "I want my next hardcover to be the full-length novel which I am working toward completing. So I welcome the innovative opportunity to publish 'Ambush' in audio now and strongly approve of the choice of Edward Norton to perform it." (Like Wolfe, Norton is a Southern boy with a degree from Yale.)
Among those ambushed by "Ambush" may have been staffers at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, some of whom were reportedly concerned that the audio might steal some thunder from Wolfe's forthcoming novel. (Wolfe is among that estimable house's few mega-selling writers.) Not true, says Laurie Brown, FSG's vice president of marketing: "Tom Wolfe is a very loyal, top-notch talent," she said. "We hope the audio does very well, and we feel confident that when his novel does appear it will sweep out everything in front of it." Wolfe does in fact have a long association with Bantam Doubleday Dell Audio's sister publishing house, Bantam Books, which has published nearly all of his books in paperback editions.
How good is Norton's version of "Ambush at Fort Bragg"? Miraculously good, actually. Norton reads the hell out of Wolfe's story, convincingly giving voice to seven or eight characters, ranging from loutish Florida rednecks (who spew James Carville-esque venom) to cranky New York Jews. Even better, Norton's reading pumps up this story's narrative volume -- it comes off as a virtual thriller -- while also humanizing it. One valid criticism of Wolfe's fiction to date is that he tends to sacrifice suppleness and human feeling in order to attack social reality on a grander scale. In print, "Ambush" had a slightly tinny taste, too -- a taste that Norton's performance completely evaporates. (Too bad Norton can't evaporate the tape's suavely annoying background music; I occasionally felt like I was tuned into the Playboy Channel.)
If you missed those Rolling Stone back numbers, "Ambush" is about a slobby-but-talented TV news producer named Irv Durtscher who considers himself the soul of a soulless industry. (In his mind, he's "the Maxim Gorky of mass media ... the Goya of the electronic palette!") Irv works for a prime-time news show called "Day and Night," and when he hears about a gay soldier who's been beaten to death at Fort Bragg, he heads South with the show's blond bombshell anchorwoman. The pair manage to smuggle a load of hidden cameras into a topless bar called the DMZ, and there they tape three drunken soldiers all-but-confessing to the murder. What happens next is riveting: The blond bombshell confronts the soldiers (on camera) with the videotape, and they manage to turn the tables on her, putting her on the moral defensive.
Like all of Wolfe's writing, "Ambush at Fort Bragg" is loaded with ferocious riffs on American culture. Observing a seedy commercial street coming to life at sunset, Irv notes the way that "this appalling fever line of late Twentieth Century instant-gratification had lit up. Ten thousand backlit plastic signs and banks of floodlights came on in every hot toxic radioactive microwave pastel shade perceivable by the eye of man ... the entire strip seemed to be rutting and wallowing and doing a jack-legged crazy dance." But the story is also about class warfare and simple treachery, about the lengths journalists will go to get a story. On tape, at least, Wolfe's tale grabs you by the snout.
Edward Norton was nominated for, but didn't get, an Oscar for his Jekyll-and-Hyde-ish performance in "Primal Fear." But if there's any kind of book industry award for Best Dramatic Recital of a Minor Literary Work, Norton should be a shoo-in. And if anyone ever dares to remake Brian DePalma's woozy film version of "Bonfire of the Vanities," they'll definitely know who to call.