Chic New York, a city built on aspiration and embodying a cultural elite who have had to create their elitism in the face of Mammon and cultural diversity. Another New York, an existence built on aspiration and hopes of survival, a daily life embodying a struggle to maintain cultural autonomy, group identity, some form of respect, a New York teeming with diversity and the struggle to get by in the teeth of hatred, racism, poverty, greed, drugs, violence, and the overwhelming desire of the cultural and political elite to sweep the streets clear of the detritus of city life.
New York in the 1980's, like English society in the 19th century, its cultural and economic elite struggling to set themselves apart, to emphasise that they possess 'real' class, that they are not contaminated by overnight riches. New York where the rich compete to be admired, to be seen, to be respected for their style and savoir faire, a city where a designer apartment is de rigueur.
This is a New York in which Kramer, one of Wolfe's characters, can embrace relief when he discovers that he no longer feels inferior to their English nanny. Insecurity is at the root of elitism, whether it is the struggle to remain in the top echelons of society or to survive in the gutter. Adultery can be carried on with discretion, so can drug use. The rich strive to insulate themselves from contact with the lower classes, the detritus strive to insulate themselves from the law and their own deadly rivals.
Tom Wolfe produces a New York of hermetically sealed compartments, exclusive social groupings struggling to preserve themselves from the risk of contamination by others. It's a cultured world, fuelled by the dynamism of Wall Street, yet so different from the barrow-boy culture of Thatcher's London.
Wolfe writes with such pace and easy flow, you find yourself swept up in the dynamic of the narrative as he introduces his cast of characters and weaves them together in a vast plot which has conspiracy theory written all the way through. Wolfe's dialogue is outstanding - he creates three dimensional characters, you can almost hear their words in your eyes, can see them leap alive from the page. You can, in fact, forget the story and simply indulge yourself in enjoying the writing.
The Picador version delivers an incisive introduction by the author which sets the novel ablaze. He dissects the history of the American novel in the 20th century, pointing out that in the second half of the century novelists strove to escape the contamination of realism; they aspired to a more obscure, less accessible style.
However, the real world fought back. Americans have woken up every morning for the last twenty years or more to find their newspapers and television channels exposing scandals, corruption, political intrigue, religious hypocrisy and sexual shenanigans the like of which no author could write without being damned as too fanciful to be credible.
The real world has become like the combined imaginations of a creative writing class on drugs. Novelists seem like boring drudges in comparison. And Wolfe delivers the examples of characters about whom he was writing being pre-empted by real life events - he's had to rewrite because the story has happened already and he'll simply be accused of lifting the idea from the 'Times' or CNN.
Wolfe's world of New York is a vibrant, frustrating, infuriating, cesspit of trivial drama and petty positioning. He demonstrates that the novelist can deliver insights which newspapers and television news cannot. Wolfe explores a world where everyone is striving to feel morally superior, culturally superior, physically superior. He delivers a city about which you can laugh ... and delivers insights which cause you to sit back and reflect on your own vanities, self-satisfaction, and insecurities.
A superb novel by a brilliant writer - dynamic, acerbic, hilarious, tragic, painful ... and universally human.