Tom Wolfe’s Last (And Best) Magazine Story

“The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce” reads like a more journalistically conventional version of a Tom Wolfe story … except of course it dispenses with journalistic conventions altogether.

  1. Read Tom Wolfe's "The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce" in the Esquire / Byliner Original Great Men: The Greatest Esquire Stories of All Time, Volume 1

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    There are not a lot of exclamation points in Tom Wolfe's "The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce." There is in fact no onomatopoeic punctuation at all. There are no "loamy loins," either. Though readers will find a few "57th Street Biggies," there is very little Wolfean hyperbole, comic or otherwise, because there is very little satire. The hyperactive set pieces that have always been his signature? Hell, there are not even any scenes, not to mention no quotes and no sourcing. The whole thing reads like a more journalistically conventional version of a Tom Wolfe story... except of course it dispenses with journalistic conventions altogether. It runs fifteen thousand words, at least, and yet it feels like an exercise in taking out rather than putting in, as though Wolfe set himself a challenge when writing it — as though he wanted to see what was left of a Tom Wolfe story when all the Tom Wolfe was taken out. As a result, his profile of Silicon Valley's emblematic progenitor doesn't record a particular moment in Robert Noyce's life so much as it records a particular moment in Tom Wolfe's.

    He wrote it 30 years ago, when he was 52 years old, and between books. He'd had a big nonfiction bestseller a few years earlier with The Right Stuff, and now he was preparing to write... well, fiction. He was preparing to write the Rolling Stone serial that would become The Bonfire of the Vanities. He was a journalist about to leave journalism behind for good, but not to "try his hand" at writing novels, in the meek and abashed way that journalists often go about that particular rite of passage, working in the lamplight at the kitchen table like garbage men trying to make something of themselves by going to night school. No, Wolfe had been going around telling anyone who would listen that he had a vision not just for writing the American novel but for saving it — and so now he had to see if he could make good. Of course, his vision for the novel owed a lot to his vision for journalism; for years, he'd been listening to people praise or deride him for trying to write journalism as good as the novel, and now he had a chance to prove them wrong by writing a novel as good as journalism. He would report his novel, in the same way that he reported one of his stories... but first he had one last story to write, about Robert Noyce and Silicon Valley.

    It wasn't Wolfe's first time to the Valley. He had gone to California, gone to Palo Alto, gone to Stanford and its environs, when he was writing The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. But of course back then he wasn't writing about Bob Noyce and the engineers at Fairchild Semiconductor but rather about their seeming opposites — Ken Kesey and the Pranksters, "stoned as coons," riding around in a psychedelic school bus. But that's part of the revisionism that drives "The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce" from start to finish. It's not simply that "Tinkerings" foregoes the textual extravagances that still make Acid Test such a lunatic pleasure to read. It's that "Tinkerings" goes back to Acid Test territory, and rewrites it. The hippies who thought they owned the future? They were afraid of the future. "They were Luddites," as Wolfe writes. The engineers who worked in the faceless office parks that were overrunning the old apricot orchards and who could only stare helplessly as the Pranksters made their bid for freedom? They were the ones who turned out to be cool. They were the ones who owned the future. And by making his last big magazine story before Bonfire a story about them — about "the triumph of the squares" — Wolfe is either admitting that he got it wrong, the first time... or, more characteristically, that he had been right all along.

    You see, there's still a lot of Tom Wolfe in "The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce," even with all the Tom Wolfe taken out. Indeed, "Tinkerings" might be the most Wolfean story of all, because once you take out all the tics and the mannerisms and the loamy loins there's still Wolfe's vision — and the vision is the one thing Wolfe takes seriously. Noyce, as it turns out, is not so different from Kesey, and Kesey's not so different from Chuck Yeager, and Chuck Yeager's not so different from Junior Johnson, because in Wolfe's vision, they're all "status heroes," all guys who grew up in some backwater, so far away from established social codes that they were free to invent their own social codes... and therefore free to find themselves at the very center of their own self-created universes. Bob Noyce? He grew up in Grinnell, Iowa, for chrissake. He grew up in the same town as Grinnell College, and whatever else Grinnell College might be, it's not Yale, it's not MIT, it's not... the East. But here's the thing: Grinnell, Iowa, and Grinnell College were both founded by Joshua Grinnell. Grinnell was a young man seeking his fortune in New York City until Horace Greeley told him, "Go west, young man, go west" — yes, Joshua Grinnell was that guy. He listened to what Greeley told him. He went west, and he not only made his fortune, he founded a town on the principles of his Congregationalist Church. Noyce grew up in the same town and went to the same church, and after he made the mistake of Going East — of going to the hidebound status outposts of MIT and New York City — he decided to Go West, where he invented the integrated circuit and created the entire culture of Silicon Valley on those very same principles... the principles of what Wolfe identifies as Dissenting Protestantism.

    The religious foundation of Silicon Valley is not a minor point in "The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce." It's both the point and the punchline — the pie in the face of the people who think they live in the center of the universe because they live in New York City or Boston or some place like that... and, as Wolfe likes to say, have no idea. But then Wolfe makes this point in all his books, in all his stories. The people who think they live in the center of the universe never do unless they live in a universe of their own invention. People in New York City never have any idea, in the same way teenaged girls always have loamy loins. What makes "Tinkerings" so interesting, however, is that he makes this point without trying to distract you from it... and so thirty years down the road the story feels like a test of some kind, or a bet that Wolfe placed on the future, as his going-away present. It's not the story of a reporter who simply wants to "get it right," in terms of detail and atmosphere; it's the story of a writer who wants to be right, in terms of his thoughts and ideas — in terms of his holy consuming vision.

    There are some things you miss in "Tinkerings" — the Wolfean humor, the Wolfean savagery, the Wolfean idiom. Without his tics and his mannerisms, Wolfe sounds an awful lot like Michael Lewis, with some of the same narrative sparkle, but also with some of the same complacency. In Noyce, he is writing about an aristocrat, self-made, and you wish he didn't sometimes sound like one of his valets. You also wish that he'd gotten a chance to write about Steve Jobs, the one man in the Valley who could claim both Kesey and Noyce as a father. Jobs tried to be the hippie who finally did claim the future, and it would have been as interesting to see what he made of Wolfe as it would have been to see what Wolfe made of him. He was needier than any of Wolfe's subjects, less imperturbably himself, but at the same time he was the guy who could have told Wolfe that he had no idea — and gotten him at last to question himself, back there in New York City with the 57th Street Biggies.

    Wolfe doesn't question himself in "The Tinkerings of Bob Noyce," and he doesn't question Noyce, either. In this story, they're both untouched and untouchable, and just a few weeks ago, there was, on PBS, an American Experience installment on the subject of Noyce and the creation of Silicon Valley that didn't add one thing to what Tom Wolfe had already seen and foreseen. What he wrote 30 years ago could have served as the script for a documentary airing in 2013, and for all we know probably did. Wolfe is 82 years old now, and he hasn't been a journalist since he saw, in Bob Noyce, a man with his hands unshakably on the future. He took great pains to get it right — he was right — and then turned around and began writing in a form where both he and his characters were free to get it wrong.

Originally published in Esquire, February 2013

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