Tom Wolfe's Multiple Personality Disorder in "The Pump House Gang"
William Goodman '05, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005
In "The Pump House Gang," Tom Wolfe does not just observe the lives of La Jolla's teen and twenty-something surfer hipsters; he melds the surfer hipster persona into the narrative voice of his piece. In some places, the narrator is an outsider, putting events in historical context, defining terms, judging the actors in the story. In other places, the narrator is an actor, talking in the slang colloquialisms of the Mac Meda Destruction Company. There is a constant tension between these voices as Wolfe swims back and forth between the youth perspective and his older, more journalistic tone. The following passage is an example of the narrative tension in the piece:
They take off from home and get to the beach, and if they need a place to stay, well, somebody rents a garage for twenty bucks a month and everybody moves in, girls and boys. Furniture -- it's like, one means, you know, one appropriates furniture from here and there. It's like the Volkswagen buses a lot of kids now use as beach wagons instead of woodies. Woodies are old station wagons, usually Fords, with wooden bodies, from back before 1953. One of the great things about a Volkswagen bus is that one canÉ exchange motors in about three minutes. A good VW motor exchanger can go up to a parked Volkswagen, and a few ratchets of the old wrench here and it's up and out and he has a new motor. There must be a few nice old black panthers around wondering why their nice hubby-mommy VWs don't run so good anymore-but-then-they-are-probably-puzzled-about-a-lot of things. Yes. [pp.24-25]
In this passage, the narrator combines a journalistic detachment from his subject, he refers to the youths as "they," with a distinctly empathetic voice that acts as a mouthpiece for the style and views of the youths. This narrative tension embodies Wolfe's overarching message about generational discord, creating the experience for the reader instead of simply trying to explain it.
1. In this passage, Wolfe takes risks with his prose, using conspicuously broken sentences like, "Furniture -- it's like, one means, you know, one appropriates furniture from here and there." What purpose does a risk like this serve for the narrative?
2. Where are the changes in tone in this passage? Where do we get the narrator's voice and where do we get the Pump House Gang member's voice?
3. In her essay, "The White Album,"Joan Didion tells of the 1960s through the lens of her personal experiences. How is the narrative voice in "The Pump House Gang" different? How does Wolfe's technique create a different reading experience?