Tom Wolfe was more famous for his suits than for his sentences in the end, which was an irony he might not have appreciated, but not one he would have missed.
Tom Wolfe was more famous for his suits than for his sentences in the end, which was an irony he might not have appreciated, but not one he would have missed. Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Tom Wolfe died yesterday.


He was either 87 or 88, depending on which headline you trust.

This is the kind of discrepancy that he could have easily riffed on for at least a couple of pages, back when he was still writing that particular mode.

That particular mode is what they and we still call New Journalism, which is funny, because it hasn't been new for 50 years, but when it was new it was radical and necessary, and anyone who does the job I do—which is a kind of journalism-y critical writing that includes reporting and research but also incorporates the subjective consciousness and voice of the author, and in which the style does not supersede but is a necessary component of the substance (which it obviously always is, but that's another conversation worth having whenever you're ready)—owes a debt to Wolfe's contributions to inventing the form.

In the immortal phrase of Tommy Saxondale, one doffs the proverbial.

The bit from "Radical Chic" (New York Magazine, June 4, 1970), in which members of the Black Panther Party are served fancy hors d'oeuvres in Leonard Bernstein's well-appointed apartment, is indelible:

Wonder what the Black Panthers eat out here on the hors d’oeuvre trail? Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at this very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons?

And then:

...Obviously, if you are giving a party for the Black Panthers, as Lenny and Felicia are this evening, or as Sidney and Gail Lumet did last week, or as John Simon of Random House and Richard Baron, the publisher did before that; or for the Chicago Eight, such as the party Jean vanden Heuvel gave; or for the grape workers or Bernadette Devlin, such as the parties Andrew Stein gave; or for the Young Lords, such as the party Ellie Guggenheimer is giving next week in her Park Avenue duplex; or for the Indians or the SDS or the G.I. coffee shops or even for the Friends of the Earth—well, then, obviously you can’t have a Negro butler and maid, Claude and Maude, in uniform, circulating through the living room, the library, and the main hall serving drinks and canapés. Plenty of people have tried to think it out. They try to picture the Panthers or whoever walking in bristling with electric hair and Cuban shades and leather pieces and the rest of it, and they try to picture Claude and Maude with the black uniforms coming up and saying, ‘Would you care for a drink, sir?’ They close their eyes and try to picture it some way, but there is no way. One simply cannot see that moment. So the current wave of Radical Chic has touched off the most desperate search for white servants.

Wolfe on Firing Line with William F. Buckley:

Of course, Wolfe and his NJ cohort also helped make journalism safe for run-on sentences, overcooked narrative conceits, and onomatopoeic indulgences, so... I hope Hunter S. Thompson and Lester Bangs saved him a comfy seat in the elite section of hell reserved for writers whose brilliant legacies are clouded by all the inferior imitators they inspired.

Here's what else Wolfe's expanded conception of journalism engendered: His 1979 book, The Right Stuff, an incredible synthesis of research, metaphysical intuition, and prose that told the story of the astronauts selected for Project Mercury, NASA's first space program with human pilots. Or "pilots," as the case may be.

Wolfe is clearly interested in the men themselves, their inner drive, their inherent sense of competition, their embodiment of certain traits that used to be considered essentially American. As he wrote in the foreword to the 1983 edition of the book (re-released to coincide with Philip Kaufman's film, which Wolfe hated, but which anyone who didn't write the book or attempt to break the sound barrier in a plane would justifiably love):

This book grew out of some ordinary curiosity. What is it, I wondered, that makes a man willing to sit up on top of and enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse? I decided on the simplest approach possible. I would ask a few astronauts and find out. So I asked a few... I discovered quickly enough that none of them, no matter how talkative to otherwise, was about to answer the question or even linger for more than a few seconds on the subject at the heart of it, which is to say, courage.

The foreword ends with the confession that many pilots had written to him following the publication of The Right Stuff, and not all were pleased with the work he had done. Nonetheless, he wrote that nearly all of his correspondents were "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. These matters add up to one of the most extraordinary and most secret dramas of the twentieth century."

He and they may have believed that they were talking about pilots and astronauts and the frontier and other stuff which was right. In fact, I believe the subject of The Right Stuff is and was the atavistic performance of masculinity, and its direct relationship to the American identity. By the time Wolfe was into his research, a decade after Mercury had ended, the antiwar movement and certain other trends in fashion and art had already sounded the death knell for the primacy of that kind of maleness—though it didn't die quickly.

And so Wolfe's book became a kind of eulogy for a death that was in-progress.

His other great work was a novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, which performed a similar function for the culture of extreme greed in 1980s New York. Except instead of a eulogy, the book was more like one of the seven angelic trumpets announcing the coming rapture.

Bonfire nailed it: The saga of Sherman McCoy, self-proclaimed "master of the universe," his mistress Maria, the black kid they hit with their car, the particularly New York-style media frenzy that whips up around them, is an eerily timeless lens through which to view so many powderkeg issues of privilege, class, race, fame, inequity, ambition, avarice, bigotry, and indeed vanity that snake around the contemporary news and media landscape like silver dental floss through rotten teeth loosely wobbling in bleeding gums.

It's also a fantastically vivid and kinetic piece of writing—a little lightweight supermarket pop-fic perhaps, but nonetheless full of passages that never leave your memory. The prologue, "Mutt on Fire," set at an especially tense mayoral press conference, and it thrums like a wasps' nest:

"It'll be on TV. The whole city will see it. They'll love it. Harlem rises up! What a show! Not the hustlers and the operators and the players rise up-but Harlem rises up! All of black New York rises up! He's only mayor for some of the people! He's the mayor of White New York! Set fire to the mutt! The Italians will watch this on TV, and they'll love it. And the Irish. Even the Wasps. They won't know what they're looking at. They'll sit in their co-ops on Park and Fifth and East Seventy-second Street and Sutton Place, and they'll shiver with the violence of it and enjoy the show. Cattle! Birdbrains! Rosebuds! Goyim! You don't even know, do you? Do you really think this is your city any longer? Open your eyes! The greatest city of the twentieth century! Do you think money will keep it yours?

Come down from your swell co-ops, you general partners and merger lawyers! It's the Third World down there! Puerto Ricans, West Indians, Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans, Colombians, Hondurans, Koreans, Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, Ecuadorians, Panamanians, Filipinos, Albanians, Senegalese, and Afro-Americans! Go visit the frontiers, you gutless wonders! Morningside Heights, St. Nicholas Park, Washington Heights, Fort Tryon-por que pagar mas! The Bronx-the Bronx is finished for you! Riverdale is just a little freeport up there! Pelham Parkway-keep the corridor open to Westchester! Brooklyn—your Brooklyn is no more! Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope-little Hong Kongs, that's all! And Queens! Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, Hollis, Jamaica, Ozone Park-whose is it? Do you know? And where does that leave Ridgewood, Bayside, and Forest Hills? Have you ever thought about that! And Staten Island! Do you Saturday do-it-yourselfers really think you're snug in your little rug? You don't think the future knows how to cross a bridge?

And you, you Wasp charity-bailers sitting on your mounds of inherited money up in your co-ops with the twelve-foot ceilings and the two wings, one for you and one for the help, do you really think you're impregnable? And you German-Jewish financiers who have finally made it into the same buildings, the better to insulate yourselves from the shtetl hordes, do you really think you're insulated from the Third World?

That line, "You don't think the future knows how to cross a bridge?" has been on the tip of my mind's tongue for 30 years, still probably the best encapsulation of the inevitability of class uprising I've ever read.

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Moments later, at the same event, Wolfe's camera zooms in and out, capturing violence, absurdity, and reflection in the space of a singe paragraph:

There's a terrific commotion on one side of the stage. The TV lights are right in his face. A whole lot of pushing and shoving-he sees a cameraman go down. Some of the bastards are heading for the stairs to the stage, and the television crews are in the way. So they're going over them. Shoving-shoving somebody back down the stairs-his men, the plainclothes detail, the big one, Norrejo-Norrejo's shoving somebody back down the stairs. Something hits the Mayor on the shoulder. It hurts like hell! There on the floor-a jar of mayonnaise, an eight-ounce jar of Hellmann's mayonnaise. Half full! Half consumed! Somebody has thrown a half-eaten jar of Hellmann's mayonnaise at him! In that instant the most insignificant thing takes over his mind. Who in the name of God would bring a half-eaten eight-ounce jar of Hellmann's mayonnaise to a public meeting?

And keep in mind, this is all the prologue. The book proper hasn't even started yet. This is page three.

I never forgot that mayonnaise jar, either. Or the "social x-rays." Or the claustrophobia of the fold-out sofa bed in the Kramers's apartment. Or the single best description of a hangover I can think of:

The telephone blasted Peter Fallow [the British tabloid reporter character whom everyone assumed was based on Christopher Hitchens, despite the fact that Hitchens was a radical leftist and Fallow an amoral opportunist; nonetheless, they could both drink]awake inside an egg with the shell peeled away and only the membranous sac holding it intact. Ah! The membranous sac was his head, and the right side of his head was on the pillow, and the yolk was as heavy as mercury, and it was pressing down on his right temple and his right eye and his right ear. If he tried to get up to answer the telephone, the yolk, the mercury, the poisoned mass, would shift and roll and rupture the sac, and his brains would fall out.

An egg yolk full of mercury protected only the membrane under the eggshell. Think of that the next time you're hungover. Or don't, actually.

So anyway, yes. Wolfe is dead. He was 87. Possibly 88. Cause of death has not yet been reported, but chances are it has something to do with being 87 or 88.

It's a little sad to have a strong vein of respect for a writer who is almost certainly better known for dressing like the gay nephew of a plantation owner, or for voting for George W. Bush (and later for writing in Ron Fucking Paul), or for being a medium-grade Trump apologist with little respect for liberals, than for the great and important work he did in the first 20 years of his career. But such is the nature of living in the ghoulish century he helped decode.

His cultural identity was a lot less interesting than his writing.

Not everyone could look beyond the conservatism of Wolfe's later years, or resist the urge to locate it within his earlier work:

But I frankly believe it wouldn't have been possible for him to do the kind of work he did, especially in a piece like "Radical Chic," if he had been some kind of undercover reactionary libertarian all along. He was an observer. His politics were based on direct perception, and stood at odds with those of a compliant and unquestioning subculture. That's where his writing came from and as he got older, that's apparently also where it went. It's why his later books, especially I Am Charlotte Simmons, never seemed worth finishing, or sometimes even starting.

Only he can know whether they were worth writing.

Wolfe and Michael Moynihan:

A small personal note, offered in the spirit of Wolfe granting writers the license to make everything about them (which he didn't, and not that I needed one): Wolfe's writing also helped usher me into the world of low-key public mischief. When I was 15, and had been sent away to a very conservative high school about 100 miles north of Wolfe's hometown of Richmond, VA, I had taken to reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe's 1968 book about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.

It would be more accurate to say I was carrying it around, as opposed to reading it, because it was exactly the kind of book a particular kind of insolent teenager might carry around and even read bits of without fully understanding. I was one such, captivated by the romance of the Pranksters without being savvy enough to discern the frame Wolfe was building around them, the better to understand the radical context of what they were doing, and what they were failing to do.

In the years since, the locus of my romantic attention shifted dramatically from Kesey & co. to the little square who followed them around and wrote a book about their adventures that was just as meaningful as Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (And which has aged a lot better)

Anyway, there was an annual prepared reading competition at the school, held in the chapel. Obviously (in every sense), I read a section from The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. This was it:

"THEY REACHED NEW YORK IN THE MIDDLE OF JULY, AND THEY were like horses in the home stretch. Everybody felt good. They tooled across 42nd Street and up Central Park West with the speakers blaring and even New York had to stop and stare. The Pranksters gave them the Day-Glo glad hands, Kesey and Babbs got up on top of the bus with their red-and-white striped shirts on and tootled the people. This tootling had gotten to be a thing where you got on top of the bus and played people like they were music, the poor comatose world outside. If a guy looked at you fat and pissed off, you played on the flute in dying elephant tones. If a woman looked up nervous and twittering, you played nervous and twittering. It was saying it right to their faces, out front, and they never knew what to do. And New York—what a dirge New York was. The town was full of solemn, spent, irritable people shit-kicking their way down the sidewalks. A shit kicker is a guy with a frown on and his eyes on the ground, sloughing forward with his shoes scuffing the pavement like he's kicking horseshit out of the way saying oh that this should happen to me. The shit kickers gave them many resentful looks, which was the Pranksters' gift to the shit kickers. They could look up at the bus and say those are the bastids who are causing it, all the shit. They pulled into the big driveway out front of the Tavern on the Green, a big restaurant in Central Park, and tootled the people there. One way or another they were drawing the whole freaking town into their movie, and Hagen got it all on film."

I'm sure I chose it because of all those "shit kicker"s. They did the job. Midway through the paragraph, my nemesis, the Associate Headmaster of the school, loudly stood up and stormed out with as much fake composure as he could muster, despite being blatantly appalled that anyone would be so common as to sully the walls of his sacred chapel with such disgusting language.

The Pranksters' gift to the shit kickers was Wolfe's gift to me. And I remain grateful.

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