Wolfe was a true Mas­ter of the Uni­verse

Woonsocket Call - - OPINION - By MAX BOOT Max Boot, a Post colum­nist, is the Jeane J. Kirk­patrick se­nior fel­low for na­tional se­cu­rity stud­ies at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions and a global af­fairs an­a­lyst for CNN.

I was not, alas, close to Tom Wolfe. I knew him only slightly: I saw him at oc­ca­sional par­ties and din­ners at his Up­per East Side haunts, in­clud­ing the Lo­tos Club, where a glo­ri­ous full-length por­trait of him hangs in the lobby. I went to a few shindigs at his beau­ti­fully ap­pointed apart­ment dec­o­rated with Ger­man Ex­pres­sion­ist posters. But I am nev­er­the­less dev­as­tated by his pass­ing. It seems in­con­ceiv­able that the gaudy spec­ta­cle of Amer­ica can con­tinue to un­fold with­out the man in white chron­i­cling its highs and lows.

Wolfe was of­ten de­scribed as a mas­ter of ver­bal py­rotech­nics, and so he was. His style – all that ono­matopoeia, all those punc­tu­a­tion marks – was easy to im­i­tate but hard to mas­ter. He coined so many terms that are now part of the lan­guage: so­cial X-rays, mas­ters of the uni­verse, rad­i­cal chic, the right stuff, the Me Decade. But it wasn’t just about im­press­ing the reader with his com­mand of English. He used his ro­coco lan­guage to get in­side the heads of his char­ac­ters and re­veal what mo­ti­vated them – which in his telling was, above all, the quest for sta­tus.

A pas­sage taken at ran­dom from his 1970 es­say “Rad­i­cal Chic” is em­blem­atic of his method:

“Mm­m­m­m­m­m­m­m­m­m­m­m­m­mmm. Th­ese are nice. Little Ro­que­fort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts. Very tasty. Very sub­tle. It’s the way the dry sack­i­ness of the nuts tip­toes up against the dour sa­vor of the cheese that is so nice, so sub­tle. Won­der what the Black Pan­thers eat here on the hors d’oeu­vre trail?”

I’m not sure if I tran­scribed the right num­ber of m’s, but I am cer­tain that no one else could have de­scribed so vividly the in­con­gruity of Africa-Amer­i­can rad­i­cals be­ing feted by the great and good of Gotham.

And speak­ing of Gotham: A few years ago, I reread “The Bon­fire of the Van­i­ties” and was even more im­pressed by it than when it orig­i­nally came out in 1987. Back then, I was still a kid in Cal­i­for­nia. Now, hav­ing lived in the New York area for nearly a quar­ter-cen­tury, I can at­test to the verisimil­i­tude of his de­scrip­tions. If there is a greater novel of New York, I don’t know what it is.

His char­ac­ters – the bond trader Sher­man McCoy, go­ing broke on $1 mil­lion a year, the louche tabloid hack Peter Fal­low, the racial ag­i­ta­tor Rev­erend Ba­con, the public­ity-be­sot­ted D.A. Abe Weiss – were based, for the most part, on real peo­ple. Wolfe cap­tured their speech and thought and dress and ev­ery­thing else about them per­fectly, as I can at­test from hav­ing got­ten to know a few of his in­spi­ra­tions. I even rented an apart­ment for a while from Ed Hayes, a friend of Wolfe’s who was the model for Tommy Kil­lian, the street­wise de­fense lawyer who ex­plains the idea of the Fa­vor Bank: “‘Ev­ery­thing in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem in New York’ – New Yawk – ‘op­er­ates on fa­vors. Every­body does fa­vors for every­body else. Ev­ery chance they get, they make de­posits in the Fa­vor Bank.’”

Wolfe painted an in­deli­ble por­trait of “the Rome, the Paris, the Lon­don of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, the city of am­bi­tion, the dense mag­netic rock, the ir­re­sistible des­ti­na­tion of all those who in­sist on be­ing where things are hap­pen­ing.” I have never lived in At­lanta but am told by those who have that Wolfe was equally ac­cu­rate in por­tray­ing that me­trop­o­lis in “A Man in Full” – a feat that was, if any­thing, even more im­pres­sive given that Wolfe was not a res­i­dent of that city.

Like many peo­ple, I re­gard “The Bon­fire of the Van­i­ties,” the defini­tive por­trait of New York in the 1980s, as one of Wolfe’s two mas­ter­pieces. The other was “The Right Stuff,” which was made into a much better movie than “Bon­fire.” Wolfe got in­side the minds of test pi­lots and as­tro­nauts in a way that no other writer has done be­fore or since. The open­ing chap­ter, fo­cused on the anx­i­ety of the pi­lots’ wives who don’t know if their hus­bands will come home from work, in­stantly trans­ported the reader to a psy­cho­log­i­cal re­al­ity far re­moved from the glossy news cov­er­age of the space pro­gram. The nar­ra­tive was ut­terly seam­less – as be­fits the New Jour­nal­ism that Wolfe helped cre­ate, it read like a novel – and yet no one ever claimed that he made it up. There was a sturdy skele­ton of re­port­ing, in­vis­i­ble to the reader, upon which Wolfe hung his peer­less prose.

Hav­ing got­ten to know Wolfe a bit, I saw some­thing of his method. He hid in plain sight – his three-piece white suits served as a shield that made the man within nearly in­vis­i­ble. To the ex­tent that any­one so flam­boy­antly at­tired can re­cede into the back­ground, he did. Wolfe did not talk much; he pre­ferred to lis­ten and to soak in the at­mos­phere. A quiet man, he did his talk­ing in print. And now he has gone silent for­ever. Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture – and Amer­i­can life – will be the poorer with­out him.

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