The Kingdom of Speech By Tom Wolfe, Little, Brown, 186 pages, $26. A long-awaited book, to be sure, but hardly one that anyone had a right to expect. Wolfe is 85, after all, and one might well imagine some flagging of his satiric energy. But here, after all that slightly unseemly novel-worship, the most savage and entertaining of all “new journalists” has found one of the most unlikely subjects to stimulate his lifelong penchant for mocking naked emperors whom the world considers the epitome of regal splendor.
In his first nonfiction work in 16 years, Wolfe has something different to go along with the “Culture Berg” he exposed in “The Painted Word” (that is, the art criticism of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg) and the architects in “From Bauhaus to Our House” – not to mention Leonard Bernstein’s party for the Black Panthers. We have here a long line of thinkers trying to figure out what exactly human speech is.
That means nothing less than starting with Charles Darwin, whom he pinions as an entitled but errant aristocrat happy to pillage Alfred Wallace and then imagine birdsong as the origin of human speech. And then winding up with the perfect Wolfian target – Noam Chomsky, whose radical political eminence and religious background fit perfectly into Wolfian merriment. (Look up his targets.)
Never mind that there has always been no small fatuousness and philistinism in Wolfe’s deification of reportage, he has a grand time ripping through Chomsky’s theories (“nothing about Chomsky’s charisma was elegant. He spoke in a monotone and never raised his voice but his eyes lasered any challenger with a look of absolute authority. He wasn’t debating him, he was enduring him. Something about Chomsky’s unchanging tone and visage turned a challenger’s tone to jelly.”)
Just as he was one of the earliest and savviest admirers of Marshall McLuhan, he now offers us anthropologist David Everett as the Chomsky challenger who tells us that the all-important power of speech is a human artifact “in and of itself, every bit as much as a lightbulb or a Buick.” Of eminent B.S. in this world, there will always be a surplus. Which is why we always need Wolfe. – Jeff Simon