From pitcher to nov­el­ist – a man in full

The Southland Times - - Front Page -

Tom Wolfe, who has died aged 88, was one of the great Amer­i­can au­thors and a founder of the New Jour­nal­ism move­ment of the 1960s and 1970s.

He was best known for his books The Elec­tric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968); The Right Stuff (1979); and, most fa­mously of all, his best­selling novel The Bon­fire of the Van­i­ties (1987). Later made into a film star­ring Tom Hanks and Bruce Wil­lis, it tells the story of Sher­man McCoy, a Wall Street bond trader whose priv­i­leged life falls apart af­ter he is in­volved in a hit-and-run in­ci­dent in the Bronx that re­sults in se­ri­ous in­jury to a black man.

Sher­man finds him­self con­fronting a hos­tile crim­i­nal justice sys­tem, as well as jour­nal­ists and a charis­matic African-Amer­i­can cler­gy­man car­i­ca­tur­ing him as an amoral racist, high on up­per-class white en­ti­tle­ment.

In­spired by Dick­ens and by Thack­eray’s por­trait of early 19th­cen­tury Lon­don in Van­ity Fair, Wolfe wanted to cre­ate a de­pic­tion of late 1980s New York City that cut across class and racial di­vides. In com­pelling, high-en­ergy prose with an acute ear for de­motic, the novel weaves its way through up­per­crust Park Av­enue so­ci­ety, the ma­cho trad­ing dens of Wall Street and the le­gal and crim­i­nal nether­world of the Bronx. It achieved near-uni­ver­sal crit­i­cal ac­claim and is fre­quently hailed as the quin­tes­sen­tial 1980s novel.

It was pub­lished in Novem­ber 1987, just days af­ter the Black Mon­day stock mar­ket crash of Oc­to­ber – seen by many as the hang­over from the drunken bull­mar­ket eu­pho­ria of the Rea­gan era. Sher­man’s story could be seen as an al­le­gory of the days of boom and bust. The suc­cess of Bon­fire was the more re­mark­able given that Wolfe’s medium had orig­i­nally been non-fic­tion (it was his first pub­lished work of fic­tion).

In the 1960s he had been, along with writ­ers such as Hunter S Thomp­son and Nor­man Mailer, a pi­o­neer of the New Jour­nal­ism move­ment, which he de­scribed as de­vel­op­ing ‘‘a non-fic­tion form that com­bines the emo­tional im­pact usu­ally found only in nov­els and short sto­ries, the an­a­lyt­i­cal in­sights of the best es­says and schol­arly writ­ing, and the deep fac­tual foun­da­tion of ‘hard re­port­ing’ ’’.

Wolfe liked to quote ‘‘Mug­geridge’s Law’’ – a ref­er­ence to the prin­ci­ple pro­mul­gated by Malcolm Mug­geridge, then ed­i­tor of Punch, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev vis­ited Bri­tain. The mag­a­zine had pre­pared a spoof ar­ti­cle on his itinerary, not­ing all the ridicu­lous places to which the Soviet leader might be taken. The piece had to be scrapped when the of­fi­cial pro­gramme was re­leased, showing that Khrushchev was be­ing taken to the very spots sug­gested, prompt­ing Mug­geridge to com­ment ‘‘there is noth­ing you can imag­ine, no mat­ter how lu­di­crous, that will not promptly be en­acted be­fore your very eyes’’.

Wolfe’s writ­ing for news­pa­pers and magazines such as the New York Her­ald Tribune and Esquire was im­pres­sion­is­tic, hy­per­bolic and loaded with as­ter­isks. It was of­ten crammed with pop­u­lar ref­er­ences as well as al­lu­sions to clas­sic lit­er­a­ture and an­cient his­tory.

Sub­jects in­cluded stock-car rac­ing, cus­tomised au­to­mo­biles, gang­ster so­ci­ety in Las Ve­gas, Cas­sius Clay and Cary Grant. Wolfe de­lighted in Amer­ica and its ‘‘glow of a young gi­ant: brave, ro­bust, in­no­cent, and un­so­phis­ti­cated’’.

Many of these ar­ti­cles were reprinted in his early books, The Kandy-Kolored Tan­ger­ine-Flake Stream­line Baby (1965) and The Pump House Gang (1968), com­pi­la­tions that ex­am­ined the new art forms and life­styles ap­pear­ing across Amer­ica. They were favourably re­ceived, one re­viewer hail­ing Wolfe’s knack for ‘‘trap­ping sig­nif­i­cant ex­pe­ri­ence in re­mote cor­ners’’.

Ataste for un­usual ex­pe­ri­ences led Wolfe to the Merry Pranksters, a group of LSD-be­fud­dled artists headed by Ken Ke­sey, known for his book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962). Ke­sey’s quest for self-re­al­i­sa­tion through hal­lu­cino­genic drugs led him and his gang on a cross-coun­try trip in a vin­tage school bus nick­named Furthur, in­tended to cre­ate art out of every­day life. The trip formed the ba­sis of The Elec­tric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which, be­tween de­tails of what the Pranksters felt while they were on acid, chron­i­cled the be­gin­nings of the hip­pie move­ment, the rise of the Grate­ful Dead and the ori­gins of the Bea­tles’ psy­che­delic phase.

Wolfe him­self re­mained im­mune to the temp­ta­tions of the hip­pie life­style. In later years he mocked the in­tel­lec­tual pre­ten­sions of Six­ties drug cul­ture and stated that through­out his time with the Pranksters he never took LSD. In­deed, the only drug he ever tried was mar­i­juana (once).

‘‘Wolfe’s prob­lem,’’ Thomp­son wrote hu­mor­ously in 1971, ‘‘is that he’s too crusty to par­tic­i­pate in his sto­ries. The peo­ple he feels com­fort­able with are dull as stale dogshit, and the peo­ple who seem to fas­ci­nate him as a writer are so weird that they make him ner­vous.’’

The Right Stuff, a cel­e­bra­tion of Amer­i­can tech­no­log­i­cal in­ge­nu­ity, was a por­trait of the post­war gen­er­a­tion of US mil­i­tary test pi­lots, and the process by which a lucky few were se­lected to be­come Project Mer­cury as­tro­nauts for the Nasa space pro­gramme.

The ‘‘right stuff’’ meant non­cha­lance in the face of aw­ful odds; in those days a quar­ter of all career mil­i­tary fliers were killed in ac­ci­dents. ‘‘It was not brav­ery in the sim­ple sense of be­ing will­ing to risk your life,’’ wrote Wolfe. ‘‘Any fool could do that. No, the idea seemed to be that a man should have the abil­ity to go up in a hurtling piece of ma­chin­ery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the re­flexes, the ex­pe­ri­ence, the cool­ness, to pull it back in the last yawn­ing mo­ment – and then go up again the next day.’’

Thomas Ken­nerly Wolfe was born in Rich­mond, Vir­ginia.

His roots were re­flected in later years in his taste for pale linen suits, elab­o­rate hats and spats – in the style of old south­ern gen­tle­men.

Wolfe was an ea­ger writer from a young age, and Stein­beck and Faulkner were two of his favourite au­thors. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing in 1951, he tried out as a pitcher for the New York Gi­ants but was not se­lected and ditched his sport­ing am­bi­tions to con­cen­trate on writ­ing.

In June 1959 he joined the staff of the Washington Post, leav­ing in 1962 to join the New York Her­ald Tribune. Dur­ing a four-month news­pa­per strike the next year he trav­elled to Cal­i­for­nia, where he met the Merry Pranksters.

His po­lit­i­cal con­ser­vatism was anath­ema to many in the lit­er­ary scene. When he voiced cau­tious sup­port for Ge­orge WBush in 2004 he said the re­ac­tion was as if he had said: ‘‘I for­got to tell you – I’m a child mo­lester.’’

His 1970 book Rad­i­cal Chic & Mau-Mau­ing the Flak Catch­ers was an early cri­tique of the lib­eral in­tel­li­gentsia, while The Painted Word (1975) at­tacked the pre­ten­tious­ness of mod­ern art. A Man in Full (1998) did for 1990s At­lanta what Bon­fire had done for 1980s New York.

In Back to Blood (2012) he ap­plied his satir­i­cal pen to Mi­ami. Re­view­ing it in The In­de­pen­dent, Si­mon O’Hagan ob­served that, with Wolfe’s fond­ness for mul­ti­ple el­lipses, cap­i­tal let­ters with ex­cla­ma­tion marks and his own punc­tu­a­tional quirk, the mul­ti­ple colon, ‘‘Back to Blood daz­zles so much that you might want to read it through dark glasses’’.

In 1978 Wolfe mar­ried Sheila Berger, who sur­vives him with their son and daugh­ter. – Tele­graph Group


Tom Wolfe in July 2016 and, above, in 1986, shortly be­fore the pub­li­ca­tion of his best-selling novel Bon­fire of the Van­i­ties. Re­mark­ably, it was his first pub­lished work of fic­tion.

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