Another Thanks to the Ghost of Ellen Willis

Every time Tom Wolfe comes out with another book, it gives me an excuse to re-read Ellen Willis’s flawless 1977 essay, “The Failed Optimism of Tom Wolfe.” She explained my tangled feelings about a prose master who had been a hero but now repulsed me. The essay — a model of brilliant construction — persuades because the enthusiasms for Optimist Populist Wolfe are so specific and accurate. Willis calls The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test the best book to come out of the sixties and I agree, maybe more so than ever. Robert Stone may have concluded that the prank was on the Pranksters but he does not argue that the trip was not worth taking. Willis’s putdown of post-’60s Wolfe is devastating: his humor curdles when it doesn’t vanish, his role as critic of manners and mores becomes quite conventional, his only remaining bravery “politically incorrect” blats.

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