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Books: Fish in the Brandy Snifter

5 minute read
Timothy Foote

RADICAL CHIC AND MAU-MAUING THE FLAK CATCHERS by Torn Wolfe. 153 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $5.95.

What Tom Wolfe has done−with a touch of malice and more than a pinch of cheek−is create an appallingly funny, cool, small, deflative two-scene social drama about America’s biggest, hottest and most perplexing problem, the confrontation between Black Rage and White Guilt.

Scene 1 (large portions of it originally printed in a June issue of New York magazine) centers on that now famous money-raising party for the Black Panthers given in Conductor Leonard Bernstein’s Manhattan apartment last January. For the occasion (TIME, Jan. 26), Wolfe coined the phrase “radical chic.” He thus described the tendency among bright blooded, moneyed or otherwise distinguished New Yorkers−lately grown weary of plodding, via media middle-class institutions like the Heart Ball, the U.J.A. and the N.A.A.C.P.−to take up extreme, exotic, earthy and more titillating causes. To hear Wolfe tell it, radical chic lays some deliciously agonizing stresses upon the Beautiful People. How do you dress, for instance−funky or fashionable? And what does a hostess giving a Panther party do about Claude and Maude, her normally indispensable Negro couple?

Ragging the rich is an old, though declining” sport. If Wolfe merely ran on like that, he might be dismissed as a frivolous type who has done little more than shoot fish in a brandy snifter. Happily, the gathering−and with it Tom Wolfe’s look-homeward-recording-angel prose−Soon begins to reflect depths of confusion and true social comedy. There is a remarkable moment when Panther Defense Minister Don Cox talks of police harassment, evoking the Reichstag fire (blacks now, Jews next is the thought), then reads the Declaration of Independence to justify talk about Revolution Now. Eventually Bernstein and Guests Otto Preminger and TV Reporter Barbara Walters, somewhat apologetically and with few results, try to pin down the Panthers about what they really have in mind for the future beyond ghetto breakfasts and the high cost of bail.

Few scenes could better reveal the painfully comic convulsions that beset oldfashioned, dead-serious liberalism in the age of the ripoff, the put-on, and the total acceptance of verbal overkill. Wolfe’s Leonard Bernstein is neither a freak nor a fool. Following the sound old American principle of defending civil liberties, wherever threatened, he winds up with the Panthers in his drawing room. Where bail was concerned, their legal rights certainly were threatened. But how is a good Jewish liberal to take a group that cheerfully talks about destroying his society and is, at the very least, linked to gang shakedowns of Jewish merchants in the ghetto and black nationalist propaganda against Israel?

Wolfe’s second target is far from Park Avenue−in the ghettos of San Francisco, about which, Wolfe asserts, bureaucrats in the Office of Economic Opportunity “didn’t know any more than they did about Zanzibar.” As a result, when they wanted to find black leaders to receive OEO grants in 1968, “they sat back and waited for you to come rolling in with your certified angry militants, your guaranteed frustrated ghetto youth, looking like a bunch of wild men.” If the bureaucrats got so shook up that “their eyes froze into iceballs . . . they knew you were the right studs to give the poverty grants and community organizing jobs to.”

That was “mau-mauing.” Chameleon-voiced as usual, and still given to Homeric catalogues and hang-ten metaphors, Wolfe inhabits an imaginary mau-mau character as he gleefully recalls some of the finer techniques. First, aspect: “You go down there with your hair stickin’ out!” Second, mien: “Don’t say nothing. You just glare.” Then, tactics−which include bringing along some ringer Samoans who all look ten feet tall. One of Wolfe’s master mau-mauers, like some Pied Piper of litterbugs, threatens to devastate city hall at the head of a horde of kids all armed with packages of sticky candy and plenty of wrappers. Another mau-mau Ph.D. didn’t even need a gang. He would just turn up at the OEO office with a crocus sack full of “ice picks, switchblades, straight razors, hand grenades and Molotov cocktails and dump it on a desk, claiming he’s just taken the stuff off ‘my boys last night.’ ” Concludes Wolfe: “They’d lay money on this man’s ghetto youth like it was now or never.”

For Wolfe, as for any satirist, manner is matter. To reduce his scenes to message is to miss both his point and his quality. Still, given the high-voltage polarity of the age, Wolfe is already being unfairly abstracted for message and misread something like this: the black movement is a put-on; the poverty program is a feckless giveaway; white liberals are pure patsies. As a result, he will endure not merely the embarrassing approval of the Neanderthals (“You see! you see!”) but the threat of stoning at the hands of enraged reformers and black extremists alike. When a TIME reporter recently asked a minister of the Panther Party’s shadow government about the truthfulness of Wolfe’s Radical Chic account, the reply was ominous: “You mean that dirty, blatant, lying, racist dog who wrote that fascist disgusting thing in New York magazine?”

Wolfe’s peculiar blend of artistic omniscience and journalistic detail has often troubled readers who cannot decide where reality leaves off and Wolfe begins. These two pieces are not entirely proof against such doubts. Radical Chic frequently goes too far in Wolfe’s “Everybody there felt …” generalizations. Still, it is generally so accurate that even some of the irate guests at the Bernsteins later wondered how Wolfe−who in fact used shorthand−managed to smuggle a tape recorder onto the premises. Satire is no way to win friends. If the Panthers ever do take over and Wolfe winds up behind bars, who will want to give a bail party for him?

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