There is probably nothing to be done anymore about what is to me the regrettable fact that American culture is obsessed by race. One may weary of the apparently inexhaustible fascination of the British with class, but at least class is an inherently interesting subject. Race is not—unless of course you are one of the crackpot theorists of white or black racial supremacy. The subject holds an artificial but apparently boundless interest, however, from its centrality to American social history, and this interest is self-reinforcing. Race is important to us and will doubtless always be important to us because it has always been important to us. That importance makes it virtually unignorable for a novelist like Tom Wolfe who aspires to a “realistic” style. But for Wolfe race is only a means—and one of many means at that—to an end whose significance is more permanent.

As does Bonfire of the...