The Beauty of Literature Read Aloud

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some books should be heard, not read.

Consider the moment in Tom Wolfe's new novella when a redneck Marine first opens his mouth. Many English-speaking readers might feel utterly lost. They might even toss the book aside.

"Man was some adder wit chew?" asks Jimmy Lowe, drunk and agitated. "You in see no snakes. I mean, hale, you caint tale me you seen no snakes outcheer in no broad daylight."

Translation: "Man, what's the matter with you? You aren't seeing no snakes. I mean, hell, you can't tell me you've seen no snakes out here in no broad daylight."

Lowe and his barroom buddies speak in a muddy Southern drawl throughout much of "Ambush at Fort Bragg" (Bantam-Doubleday-Dell), and deciphering their white-boy lingo can be frustrating, if not impossible. But most consumers won't face this problem.

Instead, they'll hear actor Edward Norton reading these lines with comic gusto, turning the down-home phonics into a backwoods patois that is more easily understood. By the end of the three-hour tape, Norton brings added life and drama to Wolfe's satiric assault on TV news, military justice and political correctness.

Audio books are nothing new, but the author raised eyebrows this summer when "Ambush at Fort Bragg" was released only in a tape-recorded format. It marked the first time that a work of original American fiction by a major writer has been published in such a manner.

Neither Wolfe nor his publishers wanted the novella (previously serialized in Rolling Stone) to steal any thunder from Wolfe's next novel, expected sometime next year. The market may be huge for that work, coming as it does after Wolfe's 1987 runaway bestseller, "The Bonfire of the Vanities."

"Ambush at Fort Bragg" (originally intended to be part of the upcoming novel) will be published in book form in the U.S. at some future date. But it currently is available as a book only in France and Spain.

"We decided to try something new," said Jenny Frost, president of Bantam-Doubleday-Dell's audiotape division. "Normally you have a hard time marketing literary novellas, and this was a unique way to get the work out there quickly."

To date, the company has shipped 80,000 copies, which is large compared to most book tapes, Frost added. And the strategy seems to be working: "Ambush at Fort Bragg" has led audio bestseller lists in major bookstores for several weeks.

Like most of Wolfe's works, the Fort Bragg tale draws heavily from current events. "The Bonfire of the Vanities" seemed to anticipate the emergence of such characters as the Rev. Al Sharpton and subway vigilante Bernard Goetz; Wolfe's latest fiction seems eerily reminiscent of other stories that have made the front pages, ranging from the uproar over "gotcha" journalism to military skinheads in North Carolina.

"We wouldn't have done the tape-only marketing if the book wasn't so timely," Frost said, adding: "If you're going to try and reach a new audience, you give people something special."

Bantam's direct-to-audio push comes at a time when the book business is flirting with a variety of new products and marketing techniques. Earlier this summer, John Updike wrote the first chapter of a book, put it on the Internet and invited others to complete it. Stephen King has had great success with serialized works, both in conventional print and online.

Wolfe's audio experiment makes economic sense because audio books are the fastest-growing section of the industry, generating an estimated $1.4 billion in annual retail sales, according to the Los Angeles-based Audio Publishers Assn.

But the gambit also has literary ramifications. Publishers Weekly said in a review that the rollicking satire, "read aloud, assumes a wild life of its own." And Wolfe himself, never one to miss a pop cultural trend, suggests that producing fiction for tape could portend a new clarity in writing.

"Reading a book and listening to a book are two different experiences," he said during a recent phone conversation. "And what was tricky about this book is that I wanted the reader to play some intricate mind games with language.

"When Jimmy Lowe first speaks, a TV producer in the book listening to him can't understand what he's saying. It was an enjoyable game for me, as a writer, but I didn't know what readers would experience. To hear the same lines read, however, might make them more understandable and more enjoyable."

Wolfe said a friend told him recently that he loved the novella so much that he drove around the block eight times until he reached the conclusion. To the author, that demonstrates the enduring power of clear, narrative fiction.

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If more writers produced fiction on tape, Wolfe said, "it might very well add to the overall clarity of writing. Unfortunately, in the 20th century, there's a widespread belief that great writing has to be difficult . . . anything too easily understood can't be so good. But I couldn't disagree more."

Reading, he suggested, is akin to a musical experience, and hearing language makes it even more melodic. At the very least, Wolfe said, "you've got a chance to experiment with a new form, a new creative style, and that's very important."

Doing things differently has been central to Wolfe's career. In 1968, he published two books, "The Pump House Gang" and "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," on the same day. Along with other writers, he is credited with inventing the so-called new journalism, which encouraged authors to inject personal feelings and experimental language into nonfiction writing.

These days, Wolfe is hard at work finishing his as-yet-untitled new novel, and publicists stress that he will not divulge many details about it. In a brief interview, however, the Man in the Ice Cream Suit offered some tantalizing hints.

"I can tell you, it'll be a long novel," he chuckled. "A lot of it is centered in Atlanta, Ga. . . . It's also based in the East Bay, south of Oakland, where what I think of as contemporary working-class life for people is depicted."

Unlike "The Bonfire of the Vanities," which focuses on race and class in New York City, the new novel deals with real estate and the world of banking, Wolfe said. It also touches on the rapidly growing numbers of Asians in the United States.

Once again, he is trying to write a novel that straddles the fault lines of American culture. But events are moving so rapidly that Wolfe and other authors face a cruel dilemma: How do you freeze-frame the world when people and places in your novel are radically changing--maybe even vanishing--as you write?

Wolfe got a taste of this when "The Bonfire of the Vanities" was being filmed in the South Bronx. One scene, when Sherman McCoy's Mercedes hits a young boy, called for a crowd of African American extras to fill the streets.

Wolfe assumed he was in a heavily black neighborhood. But he was stunned by the actual residents who turned out to watch the brightly lit nighttime scene.

"They were mostly Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodians," he recalled. "And a lot of them must have thought: 'What on earth is this all about? What planet is this being filmed on?' "

Or, as Jimmy Lowe would put it:

"Man was some adder wit chew?"

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