“One must occasionally suffer for style”—Tom Wolfe (1930-2018)
To talk of Tom Wolfe is to talk of the trademark three piece white suit, to marvel at the manic devotion to detail for furniture brands and customized cars, to list out his titles as rap bars, which run like 1950s B-movie names on LSD. Wolfe wasn’t a journalist cosplaying as a novelist to experiment with the form; he was a clear originator of a generation that wasn’t shackled down to the never ending pregnancy of wisely chosen, stitched words. He made the prose run mechanically on a conveyor belt that could go awry any time. He let it be free, let it be wild.
Practitioners of the John McPhee school of writing had always been there, polishing out the much needed elegantly written nonfiction to the world, but it was Wolfe who made it possible for journalism to break free of its genteel character and acquire the chaotic. His narrators were loud. They scoffed, shouted, stopped in the middle of sentences to start new ones; they were exuberant, caring little for the niceties that the newspaper culture of the 1950s and 60s had worked so hard over the years to maintain.
He was everything you were told writers weren’t like. Born in 1930, Tom Wolfe refused a move to academia after college, taking up a reporting job instead, having sent out “hundreds” of letters asking for work and only getting three responses, two of them being negative. After a stint in Cuba as the Latin American Correspondent for The Washington Post, where he bemoaned being unable to write about the veins popping out of Castro instead of routine dispatches, he entered the world of magazine writing.
The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, his first major breakthrough in his now widely imitated style, was a literal rundown of all the notes he had sent to his editor at Esquire, with no concern for style or format, with the intention that Byron Dobell, his editor, would get someone else to use it to write a coherent report—only to have it published verbatim with the salutation taken out. It was widely discussed at the time. People loved it, hated it, wanted more of it.
His brand of Americana was one of BBQ stands with hyphenated smells, where prose read like FM radio, where homebred sincerity, layered underneath all the pyrotechnics, triumphed the transatlantic sensibilities of the elites on the coast. In his infamous 1970 essay, “Radical Chic”, on the conductor Leonard Bernstein’s party for the Black Panthers, Wolfe ribs them all for sporting what he saw as a guilt-ridden charity show to maintain status.
He was obsessed with status as much as he was with his vanilla suit. Whether or not one disagreed with his politics or taste, and there is a lot to disagree about, one couldn’t simply think him away when discussing literature in the 20th century. The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, his psychedelic account of Ken Kesey’s travels with his band, is as seminal a cultural product of the ’60s as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Right Stuff, about the Project Mercury astronauts, is still the best literary book to come out about a US space program. The title, along with “Radical Chic”, “The ‘Me’ Generation”, “Statusphere”, and many others, is now even a common expression in the English language.
Tom Wolfe wasn’t just at the right place at the right time, he was the ad-man literature needed, whose sentences were always loaded, always punctuated to have a sense of urgency.
Always a fan of Dickens and Zola, he took to writing a serialized novel for the Rolling Stone in the mid-1980s. The resulting satire, The Bonfire of the Vanities, is a story of the quintessential ambition and greed of Ronald Reagan’s 1980s, condensing reels of America in a self-contained frame in the same wave length as Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Forever associated with his eccentric “New Journalism” brand of nonfiction, Wolfe’s success with The Bonfire of the Vanities cemented him at last as a novelist worth looking out for. His subsequent fiction titles sold millions.
Showing a brave shamelessness rare among writers of our coddled MFA generation, he fought back all his critics, writing, at one time, letters of considerable length to protest one line against him, or the time when he singlehandedly took on Norman Mailer, John Updike, and John Irving in the essay My Three Stooges.
Often enough, there had been works such as the art criticism The Painted Word and the quite recent The Kingdom of Speech, in which he takes on Darwin and Chomsky, where his talents seem wasted on arguments that hold very little. Even then, like a true American conservative, he holds on to his ground, having every reason to do so.
To Wolfe, being ashamed of an America, authentic in its Las Vegas neon and glitter, in its vernacular, televangelists, and MTV, was to be disingenuous.
From HuffPost op-eds to your average uncle’s Facebook rages on the topical issues of the day, Tom Wolfe did all of this better in an age when the only cellphones that existed were on Star Trek. Tom Wolfe was every one of the exclamation marks he used. He was the 20th century Balzac who dressed as the man from the Mars. If Gore Vidal was America’s unofficial biographer, Tom Wolfe is undoubtedly America as a Sears catalog.
Rafee Shaams is an essayist and short story writer. His story collection, Who Even Cares Who Cares, was published by Bengal Publications in 2016.