Tom Wolfe came roaring out of Virginia by way of Yale and the Washington Post onto the New York literary scene in the early 1960s, and there he found a zeitgeist brewing that suited him like a silk cravat. Though the city was, of course, the center of the universe and its mores the mores of true civilization, the signs pointed west in those days. So it was that, in 1963, his first piece for Esquire appeared, a bit of left coast zaniness called “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” that, among other things, introduced Ed “Big Daddy” Roth to the world beyond L.A. and otherwise made auto racing, pop music, and Las Vegas seem like respectable subjects.
It helped that he had Clay Felker as an editor early on, for if Wolfe, together with Joan Didion, Gay Talese, Willie Morris, and a few other contemporaries were practicing a literary and participatory kind of journalism not widely seen before Wolfe’s arrival, Felker was the great instigator, the kind who cut his writers loose and let them do pretty much what they wanted, as long as it sort of made sense. Wolfe eminently did that, and other editors gave him a long lead. If his style was quirky and sometimes goofy, he looked into angles that no one else thought to, borrowing from the poet Charles Olson’s “saturation method” of research to sink deep, deep, deep into such things as linguistics, astronautics, and motorcycle madness.
He hit big with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, published in 1968, another West Coast foray that was just right for its time, its pages populated by the likes of Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey, and some formidable acidheads and Hells Angels. His next book was more controversial, prefiguring our present debates over cultural appropriation and political correctness. Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers caught a few of Wolfe’s hipster fans by surprise, for in twitting liberal sympathies and radical strong-arming, he announced himself as a conservative, if one who wasn’t afraid to stick his finger int0 the cultural soufflé of whatever crowd he happened to be among.
Somewhere along the way Wolfe picked up the habit of wearing a white suit, a nod to his inner Southern dandy. Last February, when his daughter, Alexandra, married, she asked him whether he would wear one at the ceremony; reports the New York Times, he responded, “No, you can wear white. It’s your day.” And somewhere along the way Wolfe turned to fiction, after having written one of the most remarkable books of extended reportage ever committed to print, a superb book on the Mercury Seven astronauts and the test pilots who preceded them, The Right Stuff. Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, published in 1987, offered a broadly satirical critique of the late Reagan era world of yuppie consumerism, which he found just as superficial as the radical chic-lets of the previous decade. It’s not much read these days, but it’s oddly timely, as a new generation of me-firsters runs wild in the streets.
Tom Wolfe died on May 14, in New York, at the age of 88. His last book, The Kingdom of Speech, had come in for some shellacking on the part of fans of both Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky, whom he in turn took on gleefully in his sideways look at evolutionary science. It was fitting, for Wolfe delighted in a dustup, having sparred with the likes of Norman Mailer and John Irving in years past. He was no stranger to literary brawling, and his four novels drew plenty of criticism for him to kick against, even though Bonfire did make the bestseller list and became a movie, if one that didn’t quite stand up to the film version of his astronaut story.
It’s Wolfe’s nonfiction, though, that remains the big attraction—not just The Right Stuff and Acid Test, but the great long-form reveries that make up books like The Purple Decades and Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine. For their brilliant excess, to say nothing of sheer entertainment value, Tom Wolfe deserves to be remembered for a long time to come.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.