The writer Tom Wolfe has died at the ripe old age of 88. What a ride he had.
Always clothed in a white suit and gentle Southern accents, he was the ultimate literary outsider — enemy of all that was contemporary, supercilious, and fay. One cannot imagine him uttering the words “post-modern.” Instead, he simply sold millions of books.
Mr. Wolfe was accused by some of the literary elders of his time — like Norman Mailer and John Updike — of shallowness, essentially.
He wasn’t shallow. He was funny. He dubbed his own sartorial style, for example, “neo-pretentious.”
The white suit presented him to people as a stranger, an alien. And also as a gent. He liked both.
As for his critics, he laughed all the way to the best-seller list, time and again. Most people, he said, would rather read his books than Mr. Mailer’s. End of story.
You don’t have to put a Wolfe book down to rest your nerves and powers of absorption.
As for never graduating from journalism to high art, he pleaded guilty. Good journalism, he felt, was about immersion in a subculture — story telling from inside a tribe with both ultimate sympathy and a completely cold eye.
And that is what Tom Wolfe did. The best way to understand the power of money and celebrity in New York City is to read The Bonfire of the Vanities. The best portrait of the 1960s and ‘70s hippie culture is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. And the best send-up of the new South is A Man in Full.
Perhaps Mr. Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, which showed us what the late test pilot and early astronaut programs were like, was the book that had the most impact. That book was full of pathos and bathos, and great, heroic characters who were sometimes also buffoons. Mr. Wolfe introduced America to some interesting men it would otherwise never have known.
If a novel or a piece of nonfiction that does that is merely “an entertainment,” so be it.
Tom Wolfe may be compared to Andy Warhol in that he trusted what he saw. He gloried in the carnival. And for this, the serious artists looked down upon him.
He also trusted his ear: Mr. Wolfe’s characters sounded like real people, not literary devices.
It was said that he and Joan Didion, the great prose stylist, and, yes, reporter, who still lives, were the inventors of “the new journalism,” that they novelized reportage, and that therefore somehow their novels were less than high fiction.
But in their time Mr. Mailer, Truman Capote, and others tried their hands at nonfiction novels, often creating their best work. What makes something literature is not an attitude or a device, but the quality of the story and the prose. Mr. Wolfe was a master. Pick up one of his books. You cannot wait to turn the page. But you don’t want the story to end.
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