It can be a shock to see a photograph of Tom Wolfe before he was “Tom Wolfe.” There’s a shot from 1958 of Wolfe interviewing then-senatorial candidate John F. Kennedy, and you wouldn’t recognize him. Kennedy, of course, looks impeccable: cool, dapper, sexy. Wolfe, by contrast, seems to be slouching all over the place. His tie is wafting its way independently toward a nearby revolving door. His hat tilts backwards. His voluminous raincoat billows in the breeze.
In a word, he looks. . . slovenly. The author who would go on to write The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities is nowhere to be seen. By the 1960s, however, Wolfe’s spiffy image was firmly established. He was a white-suited dandy—or a parody of a dandy. You’d never catch him subscribing to the fashions of his time. There are no photographs of him in a paisley shirt or a Nehru collar.
On the page, he’s just as detached from the fads and crazes he chronicled—chronicled, but didn’t experience directly. The foundation of his writing was in reportage, not introspection. You could get some notion of how his mind worked from reading his books, but he gave no clues as to the personal life behind them. His sartorial choices might make him stand out like a colorful cartoon character from the crowd—but on the page the man himself is as elusive as can be.
Tom Wolfe, who died in May of this year, was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1930. His father was a professor of agronomy and his mother was a garden designer. Wolfe attended an all-male private school in Richmond. A gifted student, he graduated cum laude with a degree in English from Washington and Lee University and got his Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale in 1957. From there, he went into newspaper journalism, eventually working at the Herald Tribune where one of his beats was New York’s social scene.
“Bob and Spike,” an essay from the mid-1960s collected in The Purple Decades, a selection of his early journalism, offered a droll preview of several directions Wolfe would take in his writing. The piece profiles two New York art collectors, Robert and Ethel (“Spike”) Scull, who in the late 1950s were attempting to figure out “this whole social thing in the art world.” It appeared to be “a closed shop controlled – despite a dazzling aura of cultural liberalism – by the same old Protestant elite.” But after the Sculls invested heavily in Pop Art, invitations from rarefied quarters began pouring in.
It didn’t change their style. “Bob and Spike were blessed with that gyroscope a few lucky people get built into them growing up in New York. It is an attitude,” Wolfe writes,
that always keeps them steady somehow. It is the cynicism of the cab driver with his cap over one eye. It is the fatalism of those old guys who sit out in front of the stores in the Lower East Side on Saturday afternoon in old bentwood chairs of the 1930’s drugstore variety and just survey the scene with half a smile on, as if to say, look around you, this town is a nuthouse to start with, right? So don’t get your bowels in an uproar. Relax. Enjoy.
It was Wolfe’s ability to enjoy the “nuthouse” New York offered that led to his crowning achievement, The Bonfire of the Vanities, a roiling stew of toxic racial tensions, Wall Street excess, rabid social climbing, and legal-system maneuvers that is the definitive portrait of the city in the 1980s.
But it took Wolfe a while to get there.
The trouble with fixating on passing social trends, as Wolfe often did, is that the writing may quickly become dated. And the problem with passing judgment as frequently as Wolfe did is that you’ll sometimes find yourself on the wrong side of the verdict.
Re-reading Wolfe’s scathing portrait of Leonard and Felicia Bernstein hosting a fundraiser for the Black Panthers in 1970, “These Radical Chic Evenings,” may make you cringe. His target is the Bernsteins, but his questions on what the guests of honor are thinking don’t sit well half a century later:
Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d’oeuvre trail? For example, does that huge Black Panther there in the hallway, the one shaking hands with Felicia Bernstein herself, the one with the black leather coat and dark glasses and the absolutely unbelievable Afro, Fuzzy-Wuzzy scale, in fact – is he, a Black Panther, going on to pick up a Roquefort cheese morsel roiled in crushed nuts from off the tray, from a maid in uniform, and just pop it down the gullet without so much as missing a beat of Felicia’s perfect Mary Astor voice. . .
Well, why not? Appetizers are appetizers. And if a Black Panther happens not to eat this particular appetizer, what’s the big deal? It’s perhaps not surprising that a Black Panther minister, when asked by Time magazine for his take on Wolfe’s version of the Bernsteins’ party, shot back: “You mean that dirty, blatant, lying, racist dog who wrote that fascist disgusting thing in New York magazine?” Wolfe ends the piece with Panther Don Cox giving eloquent voice to the social ills the Panthers were trying to combat. But did we really have to go through “Fuzzy-Wuzzy” to get there?
Wolfe seems similarly tone deaf in “The Intelligent Coed’s Guide to America.” At a 1965 Princeton University panel discussion with Günter Grass, Allen Ginsberg, and others, where the chatter took a turn toward “fascism in America” (“Everybody was talking about police repression”), Wolfe burst out, “My God, what are you talking about? We’re in the middle of a . . . Happiness Explosion!”
He immediately acknowledges that his words “merely sounded idiotic.” But in “Guide,” the America of civil-rights strife, riot-plagued cities, nuclear bomb shelters, and a proxy war in Vietnam that made no sense to a sizable chunk of the population doesn’t seem to be on his radar.
Wolfe’s big breakout book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, has a different problem. Fifty years after its publication, its account of outlaw-author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and the LSD-fueled “colony” of “Merry Pranksters” he gathered around him in the hills south of San Francisco is a maybe-you-had-to-be-there-at-the-time obstacle course. (Full disclosure: My resistance to the book may stem from the fact that I’ve never taken acid myself.)
While Wolfe apparently didn’t drop acid, his prose certainly did. And when Kesey and company run low on LSD on their cross-country bus trip, their drugs of last resort (“speed and grass”) have just as addling an effect Wolfe’s prose:
The sweet wheatfields and dairy lands of America would be sailing by beauty rural green and curving . . . and then he happens to look into the big rear-view mirror outside the bus and – the fields are – in flames ::::::: curve and curdle straight up in hideous orange flames ::::: So he whips his head around and looks way back as far as he can see and over over the horizon and it is nothing but flat and sweet and green again, sailing by serene. Then he looks back into the mirror—and the flames shoot up again, soaring, corn and lespedeza turning brown like burning color film when the projector is too hot and bursting into flames, corn, wheat, lespedeza turning into brown scouring rush, death camass, bloodwort, wild iris, blue flag, grease wood, poison, sucklyea, monkshood mandrake, moonseed, fitweed, locoweed. . . ”
And so on, for ten more lines.
A little of this goes an unnecessarily long way. You find yourself yearning for a simple expository passage. You develop profound pity for his copy editor. You close the book choking on its gimmicks, and wonder if Wolfe is trying to channel Hunter S. Thompson.
Ten years later, Wolfe’s prose took a cleaner turn without sacrificing any of its gusto or flavor. The Right Stuff, to my mind, is his first masterpiece. It was also a true anomaly for its time. Its account of the navy pilots who joined the space program was first serialized in Rolling Stone in the late 1970s, and it’s difficult to overstate what an unusual venue that was for this material.
Rolling Stone in the 1970s was Counterculture Central, its pages filled with left-leaning politics, social rebels and preening, long-haired rock stars. The Right Stuff, by contrast, was about crew-cut military men who were reaching for the heavens rather than going back to the land. In an age of draft resisters and societal dropouts, of anti-heroes and alternative life styles, Wolfe boldly wanted to re-examine where combat and warrior prowess fitted in American society.
He was aware of what he was up against. “It was no longer the fashion for serious writers to describe the glories of war,” he notes. “Instead, they dwelt upon its horrors, often with cynicism or disgust. It was left to the occasional pilot with a literary flair to provide a glimpse of the pilot’s self-conception in its heavenly or spiritual aspect.” At the height of the Cold War, U.S.-Soviet rivalry achieved its noblest form, Wolfe believed, in the space race. “In the United States,” he wrote, “the men chosen for this historic mission took on the archaic mantles of the single-combat warriors of a long-since-forgotten time.”
Of course, The Right Stuff wouldn’t have worked had it been only a disquisition on a new manifestation of age-old heroism. It’s filled with vividly rendered scenes and pleasurably complex characters. It pits maverick daring (the pilots’) against the cautious bureaucracy of NASA and the U.S. government. Indeed, part of its fun comes from its frank disdain for “politicians and the press . . . and other technological illiterates with influence.” Another part comes from Wolfe’s canny portrayal of the vying among navy pilots to be the first American in space. He’s clearly rooting for them when they insist on having a window in their space capsules, and when they fight to have some kind of fallback control over their flight trajectories in the event of equipment failure.
That’s the men. Wolfe places himself just as convincingly in the shoes of the military wives as they deal with the dangers their husbands face. Early in the book, long before Project Mercury is mentioned, Wolfe is on the home front with Jane Conrad, wife of Navy test pilot Pete Conrad. A little context: “In time, the Navy would compile statistics showing that for a career Navy pilot, i.e., one who intended to keep flying for twenty years as Conrad did, there was a 23 percent probability that he would die in an aircraft accident. This did not even include combat deaths, since the military did not classify death in combat as accidental.”
Wolfe conjures the state of mind these odds induce in a spouse: “[A] wife begins to feel that the telephone is no longer located on a table or on the kitchen wall. It is exploding in her solar plexus. Yet it would be far worse right now to hear the front doorbell.” Later, when the telephone and doorbells are being sounded by members of the press eager to get the wives’ thoughts on the risks their astronaut husbands are taking, Wolfe is just as sympathetic.
The book is propelled by its chanting prose as much as its dramatic events. Its rhythm springs from all the variations Wolfe spins on his title as “the right stuff” becomes “[t]hat unmentionable stuff,” “that rare and unutterably righteous stuff,” “the will, the moxie, the illustrious, the all-illuminating stuff,” and other variations over its 352 pages.
It feels odd to call Wolfe’s style in The Right Stuff restrained. But compared to Acid Test and Wolfe’s other earlier writings, it is. His mysterious punctuational device “::::::::” (the number of colons varies) disappears, although it would be back later. His use of ALL-CAPS EXCLAMATORY EMPHASIS is minimal. There’s plenty of hyperbole and word play, but it’s deftly tailored to suit the momentum of the prose and the gravitas of the subject.
One big question raised by the book is how far to take its narrative on faith. It comes with no sources cited for specific quotes, no footnotes on how its characters’ frequently cited inner thoughts were divined. This had an obvious precedent in Truman Capote’s 1965 “nonfiction novel,” In Cold Blood. Dispensing with footnote annotation had long been standard practice in travel writing (think of Paul Theroux). Taking fiction-like liberties in memoirs was a familiar tactic, too, notably in Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I (though in her case, her 1945 bestseller did land her in a heap of legal trouble).
In his author’s note, Wolfe says nothing about his interview methods, though he does supply a short bibliography (seven books total, plus NASA History Office’s “transcriptions of the post-flight debriefings of the astronauts”). Everything about The Right Stuff is marshaled to read as much like fiction as possible, with Wolfe asking you to trust that he gained the confidence of his subjects in full.
A 1979 interview with Wolfe on NBC’s Today Show sheds some light on how the facts in The Right Stuff were vetted. “I sent everybody I had interviewed for this book a copy of the book before publication,” Wolfe told Tom Brokaw. “I haven’t heard from all of them, but I got a very amusing letter from John Glenn. . . And he told me . . . that I had described his car as being a four cylinder Peugeot. He said in fact it was a two cylinder Prinz.” Glenn, tongue-in-cheek, suggested making a correction in the next edition. Wolfe duly did so.
In that later edition, Wolfe also had this to say: “Since this book was first published in 1979 I have enjoyed corresponding with many pilots and with many widows of pilots. Not all have written to pat me on the back, but almost all seemed grateful that someone had tried—and it had to be an outsider—to put into words certain matters that the very code of the pilot rules off-limits in conversation.” In any event, it’s hard to argue with the results. Even readers who’d normally be troubled by this dropping of the usual trappings of responsible nonfiction may ask themselves, “Is this reportage or is this alchemy?”
In 1987, Wolfe turned from writing nonfiction that read like fiction to writing fiction that read like a documentary of its time. It’s amusing, three decades after its publication, to look at Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s somewhat nervous dustjacket assurance to readers that while The Bonfire of the Vanities was a novel, it was “based on the same sort of detailed on-scene reporting as Wolfe’s great non-fiction bestsellers.”
It’s also worth recalling that, in the 1980s, minimalist fiction was having its heyday. Raymond Carver was, for some people, a god. Anne Beattie was delivering tales in which lack of affect was often a character’s guiding emotion. Small canvases were the rule. Short clipped phrasing was de rigueur. In that context, The Bonfire of the Vanities came like a welcome explosion of literary fireworks. Wolfe loved language. He had riotous fun with it. He liked showing off his gargantuan vocabulary and formidably well-stocked mind. He delighted in coining phrases, the most famous from Bonfire being “social X-rays” (for fashionably diet-starved New York socialites).
Wolfe’s provocative 1989 Harper’s essay, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” made an after-the-fact case for what he was up to in Bonfire. He granted that capturing the teeming multi-ethnic chaos of New York City on the page was a daunting challenge. Still, he thought it was worth a try. And he believed the best way to do it was to bring back “the big realistic novel, with its broad social sweep.” Bonfire pulls it off—not that the book is soberly realistic. Instead, it’s packed with stylization and artifice galore, full of farcical distorting mirrors that illuminate reality even as they warp it.
Bonfire is the tale of Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street bond salesman and self-styled “Master of the Universe,” living on swanky Park Avenue. When he and his mistress, Maria Ruskin, accidentally commit a hit-and-run in the Bronx, they go straight into cover-up mode. Sherman has qualms about this; Maria has no doubts at all.
Their victim is Henry Lamb, a mild-mannered black high-school senior who grew up in the projects and had plans to go to college. Lamb, in a coma, can’t testify to what happened. There is another witness to the hit-and-run, but he has good reason to avoid the authorities.
With every prismatic twist and turn the book’s elaborate plot takes, and with every new piece of hearsay it incorporates, Wolfe throws shifting, conflicting light on its pivotal event: the hit-and-run accident. No one’s point of view is to be entirely trusted. No one emerges cleanly from the mess.
By the time Bonfire was published, Wolfe had lived in New York City for 25 years. He had the city in his blood. As a newspaper journalist in the early phase of his career, he was familiar with both the city’s high places and its low places—and he was skeptical about them all. His 659-page satire features a sprawling cast of colorfully reprehensible characters: politicians, lawyers, social climbers, journalists, black activists, drug dealers, abusive cops, and people who defy every label we can conjure.
Wolfe’s New York is vital, ridiculous, acrimonious, ugly. It’s also riddled with greed, and Wolfe is practically a fetishist about indexing the worth of every material object in his protagonist’s life. Sherman wears a $1,800 suit (“two-button, single-breasted, with ordinary notched lapels”) and $650 shoes (“New & Lingwood of Jermyn Street, London”). He lives in a $2.6 million apartment on Park Avenue and drives a $48,000 two-seat Mercedes roadster. Wolfe’s frequent mentions of prestigious brand names (“Sheraton and Chippendale side tables,” “a Lalique ashtray with a lion’s head sculpted on the rim,” “eight hundred dollars’ worth of flowered cotton fabric from Laura Ashley”) are like a nervous tic. It’s as though Wolfe has taken an approach to fiction that Virginia Woolf disdained in her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (too much attention to characters’ external circumstances, she said of Arnold Bennett, and not enough focus on the interior workings of their minds) and burlesqued it into the stratosphere. Still, even Woolf might have been awed by Bonfire’s mastery of stream-of-consciousness technique as it pulls us into the squirming, racing mind of Sherman McCoy as he tries to evade justice.
Wolfe may have thought he was writing a “big realistic novel” but the pure frenzied energy of Bonfire’s prose lifts it into the realms of the surreal. However dismissive Wolfe was in “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” about “Absurdist novels, Magic Realist novels and novels of Radical Disjunction,” many of Bonfire’s touches suit those labels. The book also fits nicely into a lineage of New York-set extravaganzas that includes Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (which debuted just a few years later), and the New York fiction of Christina Stead, especially her novel A Little Tea, A Little Chat, about war profiteering in 1940s Manhattan. (Stead’s great 1938 novel, House of All Nations—about fly-by-night bankers in 1930s Paris making money off the Crash—almost reads like a template for Bonfire, and her arguments in favor of the “many-charactered novel” in which the reader has to “draw his own conclusions from the diverse material, as from life itself,” would probably get a hearty “Hallelujah!” from Wolfe).
The animosities powering Bonfire have a starkly contemporary ring in the 2010s. In certain passages, Wolfe even comes close to coining the mantra, “Black Lives Matter.” When the clueless, alcoholic British reporter who breaks the McCoy story asks one of his sources what the black community is “exploding over,” the man reasonably explains, “They’re tired of being treated as if human life in the South Bronx means nothing!”
In a recent interview comedian D.L. Hughley, citing the current flurry of white people calling the cops about African-Americans sitting in a Starbucks, sleeping in a college library and other non-events, remarked, “The most dangerous place for black people to live is in white people’s imagination.” That’s a line that could have come straight out of Bonfire.
What does a writer who caught 1980s New York in a 659-page genie bottle do next? Take a crack at another city.
“A Man in Full” is set in an “absolutely sports-crazed Atlanta,” and offers everything from real-estate scams and racial vitriol to snake-handling and prayers to Zeus. Via multiple plot strands, Wolfe explores his Urban New South setting from top to bottom. The book, despite its title, is mostly about what it’s like to be un-manned. No one—rich, poor, black, white—comes out of the process unscathed.
Wolfe’s protagonist Charlie Croker is a badly overextended real-estate developer whose catastrophic finances are about to make headlines in Atlanta. The path by which they become the stuff of media frenzy is extravagantly serpentine, encompassing a rape case that isn’t quite a rape case, a mayoral campaign between two black candidates (one of them nicknamed “Roger Too White”), and a Bay Area frozen-food operation owned by Charlie (who, in his only voluntary attempt at economizing, instigates layoffs there). Among the newly jobless is young Conrad Hensley whose life becomes a veritable story of Job once he’s let go from Croker Global Foods. Unable to support his family, he is pushed to a point where he lands in jail. There, in the book’s most unusual twist, the sayings of Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus fall into Conrad’s hands and become his guiding light.
Stoicism! Wolfe could not have chosen a school of thought more out of fashion in the 1990s—or in the 21st century, for that matter. Charlie, Conrad, and Roger Too White (whose real name is Roger White II) become caught up in questions of how to maintain their integrity of character. Their stories are complemented by thematically related subplots too numerous to name here, all of them woven into a rambunctious symphony of hope and hate, honor and despair.
Wolfe’s journalistic prowess lends authority to every milieu he describes, from the swankiest do at Atlanta’s High Museum to the deep-freeze operations of the Croker Global Foods warehouse. His Virginia background seems also to have aided him in accurately noting distinctions of class, pedigree, and accent within the South. His portrait of good old boys suddenly “afraid to let it be known that they weren’t sophisticated enough to be cosmopolites of the new Atlanta” feels right on-target. His set pieces—a truly gothic horse-breeding scene, a lender-debtor showdown in a bank conference room, a gaffe-ridden dinner party where jokes about gays are offered as witticism to suspected Jewish liberals—are vintage Wolfe. As in Bonfire, he doesn’t just capture an entire city but encapsulates a whole era. And in confirming that he could pull off the same trick twice, he established himself as a novelist for the ages. We can look at our own world—at the Kushner family’s shady, shaky cash-flow problems with 666 Fifth Avenue, for instance—and say, “It’s like something out of a Tom Wolfe novel.”
Perhaps he should have called it quits there. His third novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, took a bright but naïve 18-year-old from an impossibly benign Appalachian family, placed her in a fictional Ivy League campus filled with promiscuous spoiled brats, and forced her to endure a 700-page run-in with jock and fraternity culture. Somewhere in this tedium, Wolfe was making a point about the perversely knee-jerk anti-intellectualism of American life, even on college campuses, and the mortifications of life in a co-ed dormitory for a girl just out of high school.
Charlotte gets something out of her classes, but mostly she worries about her looks and the peer pressure she feels to get drunk and lose her virginity. Also, football and basketball are very important, and we get frequent itemizations of strapping male anatomy (“pecs, delts, traps, lats,” and so forth).
There’s a semi-clever disquisition on “Fuck Patois” that explores the protean semantic flexibility of the f-word (noun, verb, imperative, interjection, participial adjective, “adverb modifying and intensifying an adjective”) with dozens of examples. But the book’s juvenile characters seem to have no interior compass at all, no passions, no dreams, no defined aspirations. As Wolfe drags us through their superficial lives, he feels a bit like a slumming patrician, in it for the titillation as much as the revelations. He may be an expert on peer pressure and social pecking orders. But his scorekeeping feels soulless.
Wolfe redeemed himself somewhat with his final novel, Back to Blood. He also took a hell of a chance in the book, at age 82, by viewing its action primarily through the eyes of two young Cuban-Americans. The book’s pivotal event—one that dogs 25-year-old Miami marine-patrol cop Nestor Camacho through the novel—is a feat of derring-do: Nestor’s retrieval of a Cuban refugee from the top of a yacht’s mast where the desperate man dangles precariously, hoping for sanctuary in the United States. (Any Cuban who lands on American shores is automatically allowed to stay, we’re told—but boats, even American boats in an American harbor, don’t count.)
Nestor’s act arouses the wrath of the entire Cuban-American community, including that of his own family. And it doesn’t impress his girlfriend Magdalena the way he hoped it would. In fact, she’s moving onto other lovers and into a world of “overwhelming status delirium.” (“Status,” Wolfe declared to Vanity Fair when the novel came out, is “the most fascinating subject there is.”)
Also figuring in the action: a Russian oligarch, an Hispanic mayor, a black police chief, an art forger, a publicity-hungry sex-addiction therapist, a crusading journalist (this time, a straight arrow from Yale rather than an alcoholic Englishman) and a lofty/stuffy newspaper publisher from a “shrinking and endangered little tribe” of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
Wolfe’s Miami, from its “diseased electro-twilight” at night to its “eye-frying killer-concrete sun” during the day, is delectably lurid. His asides on Art Basel Miami trendiness (“No cutting-edge artist touches materials anymore”) and the sartorial shortcomings of members of the press (“Most of the male employees of the Herald had no idea what shoe polish was”) are all-too-accurate zingers.
On the down side, Back to Blood revives the dreaded punctuational device “:::::::” (this time to denote brief shifts into first-person ruminations). Its portrait of Nestor, when not focusing on how he deals with his community’s rejection of him, seems rooted mostly in his physique. (Again, we’re in “traps, delts, lats, pecs, biceps, triceps, obliques, abs, glutes, quads” territory.) Wolfe’s take on Nestor as a “strong chivalrous warrior” hearkens back to The Right Stuff with its focus on what constitutes heroic masculine identity in the contemporary world.
But the overall impression Back to Blood makes is thin. And its conclusions are dispiriting. “Religion is dying . . . but everybody still has to believe in something,” Wolfe’s newspaper publisher muses. “But believing in by definition means blindly, irrationally, doesn’t it. So, my people, that leaves only our blood, the bloodlines that course through our very bodies, to unite us. . . All people, all people everywhere, have but one last thing on their minds—Back to blood!” That, ultimately, is why Miami, as Wolfe’s characters see it, is a city “broken up into nationalities and races and ethnic groups” where “everybody hates everybody.”
You can get a kick out of the way Wolfe phrases this vicious state of affairs without buying into it entirely. It may well be that neo-tribalism is the curse and essence of American existence—but is that really all that we are? Here and there, surely, are tranquil souls who cultivate their own interests without cravenly worrying about being “where things are happening” (a frequent phrase and obsession in Wolfe’s books). Those thoughtful souls feel like a missing element in his work—one that’s hinted at, oddly, in Wolfe’s own gallant book dedications to the friends and family who supported him in his work.
Still, that doesn’t stop his scabrous vision from giving us something we ruefully, reluctantly recognize about ourselves. It may not be much consolation, but it does mean we have The Right Stuff, A Man in Full, and, above all, Bonfire—at least until the whole country goes up in flames.