Surfer Bruce Brown Personifies Youth Movement's Delusion

Doug Fretty '05, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

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"The Pump House Gang" jumps through tonal rabbit holes as Tom Wolfe inhabits a variety of personae: surrogate member of the Youth Movement, square approaching black pan-thuh age, traditional journalist, new journalist. His passage on the gang's admiration of surfer Bruce Brown encapsulates this slippery journey through the minds and lives of the essay's characters. Here is Tom Wolfe, an old man by La Jolla standards, articulating the thoughts of young surfers, who themselves are projecting their own fantasy onto the life story of a public figure, who may or may not participate in that fantasy himself:

He has a dugout room built into the side of the cliff, about 15 feet down from the level of the house. . . . The surf is crashing like a maniac on the rocks down below. He has a telephone in there. Sometimes it will ring, and Bruce Brown says hello, and the surf is crashing away down below, roaring like mad, and the guy on the other end, maybe one of the TV networks calling from New York or some movie hair-out from Los Angeles, says:

"What is all that noise? It sounds like you're sitting out in the surf."

"That's right," says Bruce Brown, "I have my desk out on the beach now. It's nice out here."

The guy on the other end doesn't know what to think. He is another Mr. Efficiency who just got back from bloating his colon up at a three-hour executive lunch somewhere and now he is Mr.-Big-Time-Let's-Get-This-Show-on-the-Road.

"On the beach?"

Those nutball California kids—and he will still be muttering that five days after Bruce Brown delivers his film, on time, and Mr. Efficiency is still going through memo thickets or heaving his way into the bar car to Darien—in the very moment that Bruce Brown and Hobie Alter are both on their motorcycles out on the vacant lot in Dana Point. [pp. 35-36]

Neither Wolfe nor the pump house kids can aver that this scenario ever happened. The anecdote seems more like an apocryphal outgrowth of the gang's collective delusion—and the delusions of the Youth Movement in general. The executives who sold Brown's films may very well have been taking life just as "easy" as Mr. Brown himself. It's a fantasy that Mr. Efficiency would rather be blasting motorcycles through a vacant lot than gorging himself at a power lunch.


1. Does Tom Wolfe participate in revering the persona of Bruce Brown, or does he merely report the gang's reverence?

2. Does he take sides at all—square or hip—throughout the essay?

3. How does Wolfe deal with the gang's unspoken horror that one day they may turn into Mr. Efficiency, selling out for house, job, and mortgage, abandoning The Life?

4. Does The Life even exist, or is it all a delusion, or, as the sociologist in Wolfe posits, a phenomenon of post-WWII economics?

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Last modified 5 November 2003