Pump House Gang, The


Clever, cutting essay by American novelist and pop culture critic Tom Wolfe, describing the Wolfe, mid-1960s surf scene at Windansea, a popular California surf break located in north San Diego.

A dandified Virginia-born Yale graduate, Wolfe became a national literary figure after the 1965 publication of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a collection of essays that helped define the colorful but often snide and showy New Journalism. To research his article about Southern California surfers, he spent a few days, dressed in the well-tailored suits that would come to define his look, on the beach at Windansea. His 7,000-word "The New Life Out There" (as the essay was originally titled) was published in a 1966 issue of the New York World Journal Tribune Sunday magazine; in 1968 it was renamed and used as the lead piece in The Pump House Gang, a collection of Wolfe's essays published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Midway through the essay Wolfe describes a "surfing life [that] floats over the 'real' world, or the square world, or whatever one wants to call it." Wolfe elaborates as a few members of the Pump House Gang head off to a "very Dionysian" party.

The [surfers] are not exactly off in a world of their own, they are and they aren't. What it is, they float right through the real world, but it can't touch them. They do these things, like the time they went to Malibu, and there was this party in some guy's apartment, and there wasn't enough legal parking space for everybody, and so somebody went out and painted the red curbs white and everybody parked. Then the cops came. Everybody ran out. At [a party] in Manhattan Beach . . . somebody decided to put a hole through one wall, and everybody else decided to see if they could make it bigger. Everybody was stoned out of their hulking gourds, and it got to be about 3:30 a.m. and everybody decided to go see the riots. These were the riots in Watts. The Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union were all saying, WATTS NO-MAN'S LAND, but naturally nobody believed that. Watts was a blast, and the Pump House gang was immune to the trembling gourd panic rattles of the LA Times.

Surfers were generally dismissive of Wolfe and his essay, in part because he mangled a few surf expressions (describing a "reverse kick-up," for example, instead of "reverse kickout"), but mostly because the Pump House Gang surfers are unflatteringly—and honestly—portrayed as arrogant, indulgent, and mildly criminal. After the essay was published, La Jolla locals spray-painted TOM WOLFE IS A DORK across the cement beachfront pump house structure that gives the story its title.

Surfer magazine later called "The Pump House Gang" a "bit of low-rent pop sociology," but acknowledged that the Windansea surfers, who once dressed up as Nazi storm troopers and goose-stepped down to the beach for a laugh, were in fact viewed as "savages" by the rest of California surf society.

Wolfe went on to write a number of bestsellers, fiction and nonfiction, including The Right Stuff (1979), Bonfire of the Vanities (1988), and A Man in Full (1998).