book-reviews

The New Journalism

by Tom Wolfe & E. W. Johnson (eds.)

Rating: ★★★★

If nothing else, a useful index into a range of skilled nonfiction authors from the '60s. Defining the exact limits of New Journalism is difficult, and I think probably archaic in a modern setting, but Wolfe does his best here to draw out the common threads from the exemplar work of some impressive journalists of the period. The core topics of the era (Vietnam, civil rights) appear a few times in the pieces, but the writers are not all 'big issue' commentators. More than anything, the defining characteristic of the genre is honest detail from the lives and experiences of the observed.

A few of the pieces really stood out, and are worthy of mention. Michael Herr's dispatch from the besieged fort in Vietnam was riveting with atmospheric tension; Joe Eszterhas' article Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse was beautifully evenhanded in dissecting the causes of a mad-dog shooting incident in a hippy-versus-square small town, almost a Stephen King novel by itself. Hunter S. Thompson was startlingly brilliant in his coverage of the Kentucky Derby and the Hell's Angels, which suggests to me that the drugs really didn't help his later work (but makes me want to read more of the earlier stuff). James Mills' The Detective is great police reporting which could have been written last week; 'Adam Smith''s excerpt from The Money Game was similarly brilliant at communicating the nature of market trading.

Other items were mostly entertaining even if not staggering. I quite enjoyed the pieces by Norman Mailer and Joan Didion, and the excerpt from In Cold Blood. Rex Reed's celebrity interview did nothing for me, and neither did Joe McGinnis' odd retelling of a Nixon television taping. The least virtuoso piece was probably Wolfe's own excerpt from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test which was frankly unreadable and tiresomely so, a babbling outflow of delirium from a subject I was not at all motivated to care about. His other excerpt wasn't much better, and even his editorial introduction was a bit grating. I think it's fair to say that I am not a fan of his style.