Review

Ambush at Fort Bragg

by Tom Wolfe

Read by Edward Norton.

Quick --- you need to complete the following classic metaphor by providing a modern example: "blank" is like shooting fish in a barrel. I would suggest that the "blank" could be filled in by the following: "Tom Wolfe taking on the electronic media". Let's face it, Tom Wolfe going after TV news people is like --- to use my own metaphor --- Mike Tyson taking on Don Knotts. No contest. Game over. That's all she wrote.

This decidedly one-sided fight is nonetheless the focus of AMBUSH AT FORT BRAGG, Wolfe's only piece of new fiction since the appearance of his acclaimed novel THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES in the '80s. If you remember, this new story was marketed as an audio exclusive, as no print version was offered at the time of its release, though the novella had appeared in print previously, in Rolling Stone magazine.  

As it happens, Wolfe's trademark acidic observations and "in it for me" characters make it a natural for the audio medium, and actor Edward Norton makes the most of it. You can practically see the acid dripping from the dialogue as Norton performs the several vitriolic, self-serving, stream-of-consciousness monologues. These are done by Wolfe's central character, TV producer Irv Durtscher, whose main problem is that he's sick of his on-air "blonde bombshell" anchor woman getting all the credit for the stories he puts together.

The plot is simple: Durtscher and his TV news magazine cronies plan and execute a media ambush of three soldiers who are the likely murderers of a fourth soldier. The evidence strongly suggests that the fourth soldier was killed because the other three discovered he was gay. Of course, as this is a Tom Wolfe story, the primary goal of this "quest for justice" is for Durtscher to achieve soaring ratings and personal prestige by getting the soldiers to admit to the murder on camera. When the ambush finally takes place, with the Diane Sawyer-like anchorwoman suddenly appearing in the midst of the unsuspecting soldiers, something interesting happens. And what takes place, despite the easy target of AMBUSH AT FORT BRAGG, is undeniably brilliant and a stroke of genius on Wolfe's part.

What happens is this: During the course of the media ambush, the three soldiers that Wolfe strongly suggests did commit the heinous hate crime start looking good! They accuse the media people of not being fit to even talk to soldiers in the U.S. Army, let alone make judgements about them. They criticize the reporters' fabricated "authority" about subjects they know nothing about before covering them. They zero in on the media's over-simplification of issues. And then the soldiers start talking about their own recent experiences, which include getting caught in firefights during UN missions to deliver food to Somalia. And damned if the soldiers --- guilty or not --- don't score big points against their accusers. I could practically see real-life TV news people listening to this tape and running for cover. Wolfe is essentially saying to them, "Hey guys, even these murdering Nazi skinheads, who were the product of several generations of inbreeding in the backwoods of Appalachia, look good compared to you!" Ouch.

Durtscher and his producers then edit the interview to remove all statements from the soldiers that might make them appear sympathetic in any way. You can feel Wolfe's scorn for the producers as they turn their story into a black and white issue. Instead of trusting the viewers to see the truth --- that the men committed the horrible crime described --- they manipulate the interview to make everything about the three soldiers seem bad and everything about the murdered soldier seem good. Things then get bad for Durtscher because his shady actions bring on the threat of multiple lawsuits from multiple sources --- justified lawsuits. Which then makes even the lawyers look good!  

It seems that everybody in AMBUSH AT FORT BRAGG gets to be compared to the media and come out smelling like a rose. But that's not your problem, unless you're a television reporter, that is. Pick this one up. You'll laugh even as you're nodding at Wolfe in depressing agreement.

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Reviewed by Joe Menta, Jr. on January 20, 2011

Ambush at Fort Bragg
by Tom Wolfe

  • Publication Date: August 1, 1997
  • Genres: Audiobook
  • : pages
  • Publisher: Random House Audio
  • ISBN-10: 0553478966
  • ISBN-13: 9780553478969