Amer­i­can writer ac­claimed as a bril­liant satirist for The Bon­fire of the Van­i­ties

The Guardian - Journal - - Obituaries -

The writer Tom Wolfe, who has died aged 88, was a great dandy, both in his elab­o­rate dress and his neon­lit prose. Although he was in his late 50s when he be­came a best­selling nov­el­ist, with The Bon­fire of the Van­i­ties (1987), some 30 years be­fore that he was al­ready fa­mous as a jour­nal­ist, was in­deed that ex­tremely rare thing, the jour­nal­ist as in­ter­na­tional celebrity.

It was a part Wolfe played up to, wear­ing showy tai­lor-made white suits, sum­mer and win­ter, as well as fancy head­gear and shirts with de­tach­able col­lars. The over­all im­pres­sion was of a fash­ion plate from a by­gone age. The sar­to­rial fire­works fit­ted in very well with the highly ec­cen­tric lit­er­ary style Wolfe used and which made such a name for him when he pub­lished The Kandy-Kolored Tan­ger­ineFlake Stream­line Baby (1965), which brought the world the first news of the 1960s coun­ter­cul­ture in Cal­i­for­nia.

The cu­ri­ous style came about by chance. In 1963, com­mis­sioned to write about cus­tom cars for Esquire mag­a­zine, Wolfe got as far as writ­ing hur­ried notes and told his ed­i­tor, By­ron Do­bell, to give them to some­one else be­cause he could not pro­duce the fin­ished piece. Do­bell read the notes and printed them as they were.

The pe­cu­liar style, full of ex­cla­ma­tion marks, words elon­gated for spe­cial ef­fect, and words in cap­i­tal let­ters, gave the im­pres­sion of news that was too hot for the sim­ple declar­a­tive sen­tence; also that it was highly com­pli­cated to ex­plain but that Wolfe him­self knew all there was to know about it, and from the in­side. As the news was from the coun­ter­cul­ture or, later on, from the world of the New York new rich, the prose seemed to fit the pas­sion.

The Bon­fire of the Van­i­ties, the tale of the fall of a young Wall Street trader, one of the self-styled “masters of the uni­verse”, was called the “novel of the 1980s” and won Wolfe a name as a bril­liant satirist. The one dark cloud in its suc­cess was that the 1990 film of the book, di­rected by Brian De Palma, failed both crit­i­cally and at the box of­fice, in spite of Tom Hanks play­ing the lead.

The other Wolfe book turned into a movie fared much bet­ter. This was The Right Stuff (1979), a non-fic­tion ac­count of the first astronauts. The 1983 film was made by Philip Kauf­man and won four Os­cars.

Fans had to wait 11 years for the next novel, A Man in Full (1998), a rather dis­jointed and over-long look at the new south of the 90s. This was at­tacked by John Updike, Nor­man Mailer and John Irv­ing. Updike said it was not lit­er­a­ture but en­ter­tain­ment; Mailer de­scribed it as like be­ing made love to by a 300lb woman (“Fall in love or be as­phyx­i­ated”) and Irv­ing said sim­ply: “He can’t fuck­ing write.” Wolfe had a good time counter-at­tack­ing. He called them “my three stooges”. He could af­ford to be off­hand with his crit­ics, for A Man in Full had re­ceived an ad­vance of $7.5m.

The won­der­ful early pieces re­ceived noth­ing but praise. The Elec­tric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) was called an Amer­i­can clas­sic, “a DayGlo book”, the Washington Post said. It was the story of a cross-coun­try trip in a bus by Ken Ke­sey, au­thor of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and his spaced-out young fol­low­ers, the Merry Pranksters, all high on

LSD and pass­ing it out free in glasses of Kool-Aid.

Rad­i­cal Chic and Mau-Mau­ing the Flak Catch­ers (1970) com­prised more first-rate pieces of comic so­ci­ol­ogy, par­tic­u­larly the ti­tle story about wealthy New York lib­er­als mak­ing fools of them­selves throw­ing par­ties for the Black Pan­thers. The Pump House Gang (1968) and The Mid-At­lantic Man (1969) were col­lec­tions of ar­ti­cles; The New Jour­nal­ism (1973) an an­thol­ogy; The Painted Word (1975) art crit­i­cism; From Bauhaus to Our House (1981) ar­chi­tec­ture crit­i­cism; Am­bush at Fort Bragg (1997) a novella, a Rolling Stone mag­a­zine se­ri­al­i­sa­tion then in an au­dio-only ver­sion.

At the age of 73 and af­ter suf­fer­ing a heart at­tack and a quin­tu­ple by­pass, Wolfe sur­prised every­one with I Am Char­lotte Sim­mons (2004), a bril­liantly funny and hard-hit­ting de­mo­li­tion job on Amer­i­can higher ed­u­ca­tion set in a fic­tional Ivy League univer­sity in Penn­syl­va­nia. Back to Blood (2012), set in Mi­ami and with a CubanAmer­i­can cop as its lead char­ac­ter, was de­scribed by the Guardian’s re­viewer as “like a novel for the hard of hear­ing, mega­phone meets ear trum­pet”; The King­dom of Speech (2016) chal­lenged the­o­ries of evo­lu­tion and speech de­vel­op­ment.

Wolfe was born in Rich­mond, Vir­ginia. In later years he de­scribed his fa­ther, Thomas, as an agron­o­mist, but in the early years he had called him “a gen­tle­man farmer”. Wolfe was en­cour­aged to write by his mother, Louise, and at nine, he tried his hand at bi­ogra­phies of Napoleon and Mozart.

He went to a pri­vate day school, St Christo­pher’s, in Rich­mond, and then to Washington and Lee Univer­sity, in Lex­ing­ton, Vir­ginia, where he played base­ball and edited the lit­er­ary mag­a­zine Shenan­doah. He told me that he was very se­ri­ous about be­ing a base­ball pitcher and once put on a tremen­dous amount of weight in or­der to throw the ball harder.

Af­ter Washington and Lee, he went to Yale and got a PhD in 1957 in Amer­i­can stud­ies. He then found a job in jour­nal­ism on the Spring­field Union in Mas­sachusetts. That is where I first met him. It would be pleas­ant to think that his col­leagues all saw what a suc­cess he would be, but this is not true. We only saw that he was dif­fer­ent. This we put down to his be­ing a south­erner, and at that time in New Eng­land we were sus­pi­cious of south­ern­ers, think­ing they might have a slave or two stashed away in a back­yard shed. His south­ern ways were in fact some­times shock­ing: he told jokes about black peo­ple with­out tak­ing in the pained ex­pres­sions of his au­di­ence – or per­haps he was do­ing it on pur­pose to an­noy us.

Early on, he demon­strated his un­usual an­gle on sto­ries, and it was not al­ways ap­pre­ci­ated. Once he was sent to cover an out­door con­cert of clas­si­cal mu­sic in the Berk­shire moun­tains and wrote a long piece about the way peo­ple sat on the grass lis­ten­ing to it. This con­fused his ed­i­tor at the Spring­field Union. An­other time he was cov­er­ing an event at Mount Holyoke Col­lege in nearby South Hadley and wrote mainly about how the pres­i­dent of the col­lege held his chin in a jut-jawed fash­ion while speak­ing. The col­lege was fu­ri­ous and de­manded an apol­ogy.

At this pe­riod he was spend­ing most of his free week­ends in New

The sar­to­rial fire­works fit­ted in well with the highly ec­cen­tric lit­er­ary style


Wolfe in 2012. Be­low, The Bon­fire of the Van­i­ties

– the ‘novel of the 1980s’ – told the tale of a Wall Street trader. The Right Stuff, 1979, gave a non-fic­tion ac­count of the first astronauts

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