After attending a heaping hunk of hot rod shows this summer, I finally got around to reading Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. This is a collection of Wolfe’s articles published between 1963 and 1965 for Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar and the New York Herald Tribune. Although I’ve been hanging around in retro-circles for the past fifteen-plus years, I’ve never heard anyone discuss this book (other than Steve Sailer), which borders on absolute travesty. The first half reads like the Retro Bible; Las Vegas, hot rod shows, kustom kulture, demolition derbies, Googie Architecture (which Wolfe refers to as “baroque modern”), dirt track racing, Cary Grant, Phil Spector, and so on. Wolfe has a rock solid command of the English language and an uncanny knack for describing people, places and things, but that’s not his best attribute as a writer. He also has an encyclopedic knowledge of art, history and culture that enables him to take a seemingly trivial manifestation of pop culture and contextualize it to the point that it all makes perfect sense.
As a point of contrast, a couple of years ago, I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson, and I was… underwhelmed. After reading some of his well researched and less “gonzo” musings on the Hell’s Angels and the Kentucky Derby, I really thought this book would be better. Basically, Thompson just gets loaded on a bunch of different drugs with his 300-lb Samoan attorney, drives recklessly to Las Vegas, acts like an ass and has paranoid delusions. Other than a few hilariously scathing remarks about hippies, late-60’s youth culture and Timothy Leary, I really didn’t get much out of it. At his best, Thompson was extremely insightful and had a knack for putting strange bits of Americana into their proper context with historical reverence. However, he just didn’t seem to get Vegas, much to his loss, and even more so the reader’s.
Most of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reads thusly, “I’m loaded on mescaline! I’m drunk! I’m high! I’m on ether! My attorney is naked and breaking things whilst throwing up! AAAAAHHH!!! Cops!” Meh. I guess you had to be there. I hate to say this, but the movie (which I plan to cover in a future post) was way better than the book. It conveyed much more of the humor and absurdity, and I actually gave a damn about the movie characters.
Fortunately, Tom Wolfe really, really got Vegas! This was precisely the insight I coveted.
I call Las Vegas the Versailles of America, and for specific reasons. Las Vegas happened to be created after the war, with war money, by gangsters. Gangsters happened to be the first uneducated…but more to the point, unaristocratic, outside of the aristocratic tradition… the first uneducated, prole-petty-burgher Americans to have enough money to build a monument to their style of life. They built it in an isolated spot, Las Vegas, out in the desert, just like Louis XIV, the Sun King, who purposely went outside of Paris, into the countryside, to create his fantastic baroque environment to celebrate his rule. It is no accident that Las Vegas and Versailles are the only two architecturally uniform cities in Western history.
Well said, Mr. Wolfe. His descriptions of off-duty showgirls in hot pants were even more epic. He started off by coining the phrase “buttocks décolletage” and it just got exponentially more awesome from there. Unfortunately, the second half of the book delves into myriad articles detailing inherent pretentiousness and fruityness of the New York art gallery scene, just before further descending into the even more New York-centric navel gazing myopia of various socialites. None of which I found particularly interesting, save the chapter on neo-Puritan Huntington G. Hartford II and his Gallery of Modern Art.
Regardless, the first half of the book should be required reading for anyone into retro culture. I did manage to locate a pdf of the eponymous chapter dealing with George Barris, Ed Roth, Dick Dale, and kustom kars.