|Tom Wolfe, 1930-2018.|
Tom Wolfe died yesterday at the age of 88. If you're a regular reader of my blog, you probably know that Tom Wolfe was one of my favorite authors. I've read and reviewed almost all of his books. Wolfe was one of the most insightful commentators on American culture of the last 50 years. He brought his prodigious talent to bear on many different subjects, from car customizers, to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, to the Black Panthers, the New York City art world, the Mercury space program, and many others.
Wolfe’s prose style was electric. He broke many of the conventions of journalism, using onomatopoeia, numerous exclamation points, and extensive dialogue to capture his subjects. His style may have been an example of love-it-or-hate-it, but no one could deny how unique it was.
No appreciation of Tom Wolfe would be complete without mentioning his unique sartorial style. His trademark became a white suit, often accented with a hat and cane. White summer suits were a tradition for men in the South, where Wolfe was born and raised, but were a rarity in the North. When Wolfe had a white suit made out of a heavier material in the early 1960’s and started wearing it in the winter in New York City he shocked people. And so Wolfe kept wearing it, just to piss people off! Wolfe quickly learned that not fitting in would work just fine for him as a reporter.
In a 1980 interview, Wolfe used his clothes to make a larger point about his writing. Wolfe said, “In the beginning of my magazine-writing career, I used to feel it was very important to try to fit in…and it almost always backfired…I realized that not only did I not fit in, but because I thought I was fitting in in some way, I was afraid to ask such very basic questions as, what’s the difference between an eight-gauge and seven-gauge tire, or, what’s a gum ball, because if you’re supposed to be hip, you can’t ask those questions. I also found that people really don’t want you to try to fit in. They’d much rather fill you in.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.148-9)
And for some reason, people trusted this man in the white suit. Yes, that was it! He looked like he was from the 19th century! How much of a ruckus could this soft-spoken man possibly start? The answer was plenty. Controversy followed Wolfe from the very beginning of his writing career. He gave Norman Mailer a bad review in 1965, which Mailer was still smarting over two years later. Wolfe also managed to piss off everyone at The New Yorker with his two 1965 articles about the magazine’s 40th anniversary.
Throughout all of his books, from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, through Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, up to his most recent work, 2016’s The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe never stopped searching out new and exciting subjects to explore. His work will stand as some of the finest American writing of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Wolfe was always fascinated by gradations in status, and he found a whole hierarchy to explore among the military test pilots who became the Mercury 7 astronauts. He wrote in his 1979 book The Right Stuff:
“Nor was there a test to show whether or not a pilot had this righteous quality. There was, instead, a seemingly infinite series of tests. A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even-ultimately, God willing, one day-that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.” (P.17-8)
As a writer, Tom Wolfe surely had the right stuff.