CHICAGO — In characteristic white linen suit, polka dotted tie and wing-tips, author Tom Wolfe somewhat uncomfortably took centerstage in the Grand Ballroom at the McCormick Place Convention Center on May 29 to talk up his forthcoming novel “A Man in Full” during the opening night of BookExpo America.
Unfortunately, due to the poor sound system and Wolfe’s near whisper-quality voice, the majority of the more than 500 people gathered at the reception missed most of what they’d come to hear about this latest work from the author of “Bonfire of the Vanities” and “The Right Stuff.”
Staffers from Farrar Straus Giroux, publishers of the book (due out in November) and hosts of the soiree, paced back and forth off to the side of the dais and attempted to pump up the volume, but to no avail.
Fans sitting cross-legged on the floor — clearly delighted to be just a few feet from Wolfe — provided a guide for the rest of the audience to know when the author was saying something particularly enlightening or humorous. Most attendees, however, heard for themselves only the odd word in Wolfe’s description of “A Man in Full,” which is a story that unfolds in a “racially mixed, late-century boomtown full of fresh wealth, avid speculators and worldly wise politicians.”
After addressing the audience in full, Wolfe courted questions from the media, who hungrily huddled around him down on the main floor.
Again, Wolfe’s voice was nearly impossible to hear, and reporters leaned toward him — sometimes balancing on only one leg — with heads turned sideways to get their ears in the closest possible position.
In one of his audible comments, Wolfe did give a nod to fellow author Richard Price’s new novel, “Freedomland,” for its social realism — a quality which Wolfe has said is lacking in most of today’s fiction.
“Nonfiction writers are doing a much better job of catching the richness and complexity of our time,” Wolfe proffered. “Books like ‘Barbarians at the Gate’ are marvelous.”
Wolfe also said that while new technologies like computers and the Internet are speeding things up, “they aren’t improving the primary process of writing.” He, in fact, prefers to use a manual typewriter.
As Wolfe continued, the journalists seemed to give up actually trying to hear and were watching his face and following his lead on the appropriate times to laugh. As one reporter noted, “This is one of those times when you just shove your recorder in there and hope for the best.”
Apparently, it didn’t occur to anyone to just ask Wolfe to speak up.