THE POPE WALKED into the office today. His presence was high-fashion pietistic.
Divine off-white three-piece suit, his manicured hands cradling a dark hat, looking all majestic, like a communion wafer you would wet on your tongue and then swallow as if Sanctifying Grace were a course of French cuisine at Perrino’s.
There was nothing radical chic about the way he walked. Like an astronaut to a launch. He mau-maued a few newsroom acquaintances and caught no flak in our pumphouse gang known as the Herald-Eczema, where we celebrate mass with Kool-Aid acid-tested beer since we’re too poor for Chateauneauf du Pape or whatever the pope orders at Perrino’s or Elaine’s in New York where he lives.
He seemed almost like a vision, one of those Ahas!, an exclamation point on a constipated key of an IBM Selectric because the pope sometimes writes as if suffering from colitis, and, of course, because he is the pope, he can get away with it.
Tom Wolfe walked into the office today. He is on his national tour mau-mauing his latest book, The Right Stuff, to critics, reporters, talk show hosts, to all the brethren of the written and spoken word. whose souls have a tinge of intimidation and spasms of insecurity around the man, the writer, Caramba! the pope of New Journalism himself, the only being among us with, yes, the right stuff.
More than any journalism school, more than any creative writing class, Tom Wolfe and the so-called New Journalists, who all seem to trace their ancestry back to the old New York Herald-Tribune, have had a greater influence on the kind of writing that is being practiced today in non-fiction, in magazines and now, in some places, in those dinosaurs of writing, newspapers.
But at the top of them, el numero, the writer who has never been left behind because he has the same eye for the word as he does for threads, is Tom Wolfe. Compared to him, the works of other writers read like Hallmark greeting cards. No one can touch him. He is the High Mass … the right stuff.
You feel, uh, not worthy that his word should enter under your roof. When you see him, nothing about him out of place, you have to recite the New Journalists’ Creed:
I believe in Tom Wolfe, the Writer Almighty, Artist of Culture and Life. And in the Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby, His first Son, Our Model, Who was conceived of’ the Holy Mind, born of the Virgin Word, suffered under Smaller Minds. was criticized, denounced and nearly banisned.
He ascended into legend, sitteth at the right hand of James Joyce, the Artist Almighty. From thence, He shall come to judge the Radical Chic and the Fad.
I believe in the Holy Mind, the Holy Painted Word, the Conmunion of Style, the forgiveness of excesses, the reprinting of His works and fame everlasting.
Pope Tom Wolfe walked into the office today, and I looked at him in awe. Again.
I know he is the pope because every time I see him I become just like all those masses who lined the streets to see John Paul II. I freeze and go duh…
Once, I went to hear Pope Tom speak at Boston University, and I had a great front row seat. Pope Tom came out dressed in a white pin-stripe suit, snapping his fingers and strutting, yes, strutting like he’d just blown out the sun. He smiled and with that round face of his, he looked like the man in the moon, which convinced me that the entire American space program was conceived and designed just so that we could discover Tom Wolfe.
After he spoke, Pope Tom took questions from the audience. I waited, not wanting to be an early guest into his parlor, then I finally raised my hand.
And he pointed to me! The pope actually wanted me to ask him a question! My palms went clammy. I had this great question to ask him about the New Journalism, and it stayed written there in my head, because when I finally opened my mouth and got the words out, I blew the whole thing.
“I Iove your suit,” I said and sat down.
When Tom Wolfe walked into the office today, I again sat there staring with a copy of his latest book under my arrm. I was going to ask the Pope to sign it for me.
But I couldn’t. My pulse rate was too fast and the blood pressure too hi;gh.
I would never have made it as an astronaut either.
Published in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, October 21, 1979