Tom Wolfe, Ace Reporter

In the only article written expressly for his new nonfiction collection--his first since 1976--Tom Wolfe decries the lazy, navel-gazing ways of contemporary novelists in a piece called "My Three Stooges." The trio in question--Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving--all slammed Wolfe's latest novel, "A Man in Full." Wolfe claims he's merely calling them stooges in the theatrical sense of a "straight man who feeds lines to the lead actor in a play." But in fact, he doesn't seem very interested in attacking his critics (a slur here and there, nothing serious). Instead, he uses their criticism as an excuse to reopen his attack on modern literature's inbred estheticism. For years--decades!--Wolfe has been quarreling with America's literary establishment (read: novelists who don't write exhaustively researched realist fiction like his). And the more he carries on, the more you suspect that his gripe isn't with certain kinds of fiction writers but with fiction writers generally. Despite all his own success with fiction, Wolfe seems to have never completely shucked the newsroom reporter's grudging skepticism when faced with the novelist's art. Behind everything he says on the subject, you can hear his disbelieving whisper, "You mean, they just make it up?"

Wolfe may have made millions off his fiction, but at heart he is and always will be a terrific reporter. "Hooking Up" provides a great introduction to Wolfe the nonfiction stylist: the peerless portraitist (Robert Noyce, Frederick Hart), the contrarian social critic ("In the Land of the Rococo Marxists") and the literary bomb thrower ("My Three Stooges"). Yes, there is a piece of fiction here ("Ambush at Fort Bragg," a self-contained novella cut from "A Man in Full"). But the strongest entries are factual pieces on everything from teen sex to sociobiology. The book's title is a sexual metaphor, but in Wolfe's hands, it means making connections among the culture's disparate corners. And nobody hooks up better than he does. The portrait of Noyce, inventor of the silicon chip, founder of Intel, is a gorgeous profile, but it is also a superb think piece, in which Wolfe argues that the ethos of Silicon Valley is really the triumph of Protestantism minus God. Consider that Wolfe wrote this in 1983, when almost no one had heard of Noyce, and the author looks downright visionary.

Not everything in "Hooking Up" is so wonderful. Nice as it is to have Wolfe's 1965 articles on The New Yorker in book form for the first time, time has defused what were once incendiary pieces. And the "Fort Bragg" novella-- the tale of a "60 Minutes"-style television crew's high-tech lynching of three soldiers suspected of murdering a gay comrade--is simply out of place amid all these sleek essays and profiles. Top-heavy with great reporting, mighty skimpy in the plot department, it prompts the thought that invariably dogs a reader working his way through Wolfe's enormous novels: that inside these fat fictions is a thin and nimble reporter struggling to get out. "Hooking Up" lets him off the leash to delightful effect.