Tom Wolfe, RIP, 1930-2018

Author, gadfly, wordsmith, dandy.

click to enlarge A young reader learning how to become A Man in Full - Ben Wiley
Ben Wiley
A young reader learning how to become A Man in Full

Most authors can go through life pretty much unrecognizable to the public. Sure, some readers may know their favorite authors from the book jacket photographs, but one writer’s photo usually looks like another as they stare into the middle distance, considering life’s imponderables. 

Tom Wolfe, on the other hand, was immediately recognizable. Known for his sartorial flair, his tall, slender carriage was striking in those bespoke three-piece vanilla suits. With his starched high collar, watch fob, white spats, red-and-white socks, white shoes, and sometimes even a boutonniere and tri-folded pink handkerchief in his jacket pocket, he was a throwback to the F. Scott Fitzgerald era. He dressed like Gatsby, even while his writing eviscerated contemporary Gatsby-like pretension, greed, mendacity and vanity.

He characterized his own impeccable style as “neo-pretentious” and a “harmless form of aggression.”

His “New Journalism” brought a novelistic technique to the business of reporting the news, introducing the phrases "radical chic" and "Me Decade” to our cultural lexicon. He was peerless in this regard, even while his New Journalism peers were Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin. He perfected that blend of newspaper reporting of facts with a novelist’s verve and zest for telling a story using a scene-by-scene construction to narrate it. It seems so obvious to us today in a world of clickbait and sensational headlines to sell “news," but Wolfe, et al. are responsible for moving journalism into the novelist’s realm.

Indeed, this may very well be Wolfe’s lasting legacy, far beyond his clothing style, even outlasting his novels.

With his ear for dialogue and his eye for egregious pretense, he was in a perfect position to first skewer, then eviscerate, but never fully obliterate what he saw as reprehensible behavior among the aristocratic intelligentsia of the New York crowd. He famously wrote a 20,000 word (hey, my editor restricts me to under 1,000) screed in New York Magazine (editor's note: Yes, but Ben, we aren't New York Magazine) against New York liberals such as Leonard Bernstein, genius of the New York Philharmonic, who had hosted a glamorous fundraiser for Black Panthers. It infuriated both liberals and Panthers alike. A few of those 20,000 words: “Do Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled on crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at the very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons?" This essay was included in his 1970 collection, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.

He was a prophet and historian of the counterculture movement alongside Ken Kesey and LSD in 1968's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

He discovered the flawed humanity of the 1979 Mercury astronauts in The Right Stuff, made into film in 1983 with Sam Shepard as test pilot Chuck Yeager.

Then his first novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, in 1987, brought his vicious, biting satire of the 1980s New York business world with its high finance, conspicuous consumption and moral failings. (By the way, Trump got his start in this decade.)

His wildly successful second novel, 1998's A Man in Full, set in Atlanta, depicts the rise and fall of a Georgia Tech football star turned millionaire real-estate developer. Wolfe’s own quintuple bypass surgery and subsequent depression figured into this novel as the protagonist really does parallel Wolfe’s own encounter with mortality.

He attacked the emptiness of contemporary art in The Painted Word, 1975, and the emptiness of contemporary architecture in From Bauhaus to Our House, 1981. Later novels never performed as well as Bonfire or Man in Full. I Am Charlotte Simmons was about a college student’s experience with sex and alcohol, and 2012's Back to Blood, was about a Cuban-American police officer in Miami. Both books seem bloated and unfocused, as if Wolfe had lost that eye and ear that propelled him to justified fame.

Not all writers admired him, faulting him for showing off his pyrotechnical prowess with words, accusing him of selling his artist’s soul to the same finance devil that he was condemning in American business, and finally just for being too famous, too flamboyant. Wolfe got his come-back later when he wrote “My Three Stooges” about John Irving, Norman Mailer and John Updike, three prominent novelists who had seemed most bothered by Wolfe’s accomplishments. 

My recommendation if you’re looking for powerful and evocative writing is to read, or re-read, The Right Stuff and A Man in Full. You will experience Wolfe at the height of his powers. The young boy in the photograph has made a good choice.

About The Author

Ben Wiley

%{[ data-embed-type="image" data-embed-id="59a99bae38ab46e8230492c5" data-embed-element="span" data-embed-size="640w" contenteditable="false" ]}%Ben Wiley is a retired professor of FILM and LITERATURE at St. Petersburg College. He also was on staff in the Study Abroad Office at University of South Florida as statewide...
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