There’s something peculiar about great writers, something special that makes them grow beyond the confines of their bodies and influence the world around them. I’m not talking about an intellectual or ethereal quality, I’m referring to an actual physical phenomenon that I’ve experienced in the flesh on several occasions: I’ve seen a teeming crowd ripen with silence the moment Paul Auster started speaking; I’ve been in a room with Salman Rushdie and I’ve felt the room move with him as if he alone were the source of gravity. But even in the context of these extraordinary characters, I never saw anyone distort reality around them like Tom Wolfe when he was ushered by an army of stewards into a backstage room ahead of a presentation in the Brooklyn Book Festival. Wolfe was luminous in his trademark white suit and wide-brimmed hat, and the rest of us in that room were simultaneously awed and illumed by his brittle presence.
Tom Wolfe was a mainstay of the New York literary scene for so long it’s easy to forget he was actually a southerner. Born in Virginia in 1930, he turned to journalism in the late 1950s in Washington, before moving in 1962 to New York where he would live until his passing on May 14, 2018. Wolfe’s particular strain of journalism earned him his first book deal in 1965, when a selection of his pieces was published as The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamlined Baby. By 1968 his first book-length piece hit the shelves. It carried a similarly extravagant title, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and it went on to become the most famous example of an emerging form of reportage dubbed New Journalism.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a detailed and remarkably early account of the hippie scene in California in which Wolfe chronicles the activities of cult figure Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and his followers, the self-styled Merry Pranksters. Set right in the middle of the controversy that followed the prohibition of LSD in the US, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test masterfully pairs a dynamic, witty style with a series of surrealistic events that encapsulate the essence of that era’s underground counter culture. Yet what makes the book stand out is not so much Wolfe’s writing style—though that too—but rather the perspective he adopts to tell the story. Disregarding all journalistic conventions and in fact defying the rules, Wolfe doesn’t even try to be objective in his representation, profiling his narrator instead as an infiltrated agent of sorts, privy to the insight of one looking out from the inside and yet furnished with the sort of subtle critical tone that distinguishes him as a relatively sympathetic observer rather than an accomplice.
The LSD-infused context of the Merry Pranksters provides The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test with the perfect setting for Wolfe’s experiment to thrive. Subsequently, he would continue to exploit the benefits of this in-between perspective, developing a distinctive narrative voice, almost a toned-down version of Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo journalism, that would become his signature throughout the 1970s. Of note is his “Radical Chic” in which he documents a meeting between Leonard Bernstein’s circle of liberal friends and members of the Black Panther movement to try to find ways to further social change in American society. In 1975 he published the essay The Painted Word, a deliberately incendiary and typically idiosyncratic perspective on modern art which discusses the role of the concept with irresistible yet at times mordant humor.
Wolfe’s avant-garde handling of the nonfiction form reached its zenith with The Right Stuff (1979), an extolling account of the life of test pilots and astronauts in the days of the race for space. As well as coining the term that gives the book its name, The Right Stuff gave a human face to the highly technical space program, describing in vivid detail the emotional travails of America’s latest batch of heroes. It took Wolfe seven years and a considerable amount of effort to complete the book, but once it came out it proved to be the sort of work that defines not only an author but an era. Unfortunately, in the age of the image the Hollywood production of The Right Stuff, starring Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid and Sam Shepherd, failed to do it justice. Then again, perhaps the singular magic inherent in Tom Wolfe’s style can only be conveyed in words—in his words.
As Wolfe’s literary status flourished in the 1980s he ventured away from nonfiction, publishing in 1987 his first and most successful novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. The step was actually less dramatic than it might have seemed at the time, as he applied his methodology of exhaustive research to create a fictional world around his findings (instead of taking creative liberty in recreating the factual world he’d been researching). The Bonfire of the Vanities, which also became a high-profile Hollywood production, reveals a thorough investigation into the yuppie generation of mega-rich Wall Street stockbrokers, the flipside of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, as it were. Wolfe’s examination of the upper echelons of American society predictably exposes major moral shortcomings as it condemns the social inequality, racial prejudice and lopsided wealth distribution that still affect our times.
In some sense the same topic is central to Wolfe’s next novel, A Man in Full (1998), which could be seen as a somewhat oblique elaboration of the argument on personal realization first expounded in The Bonfire of the Vanities. As was to be expected, Wolfe’s novel garnered much attention and a huge literary feud ensued regarding his place in the pantheon of American letters. John Updike wrote a largely positive review which nevertheless carried a clear reminder that for all the talent and the unmistakable genius in Wolfe’s prose his work lacked the substance of great writers; Norman Mailer, in typically boorish fashion, joined the conversation with a more damning review. By the time John Irving had echoed the opinions of the two guards of honor of American literature Tom Wolfe began referring to them as Curly, Larry and Moe.
Wolfe remained active until the end, although nothing he wrote in the final two decades of his career would have a similar impact to the likes of The Right Stuff or The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I have no intention of contradicting the great John Updike in his assessment of his literary rival, and in any case I seldom deal in matters of posterity. All I know is that when I crossed paths with Tom Wolfe in Brooklyn on a warm autumn’s day—his pink octogenarian skin glowing with sweat and the hue of a dangerously high blood pressure—I was struck by the way in which space warped around him. He was the sun around which everyone there revolved, he was the cause of a buzzing sound that grew as more people joined the whispering many who’d noticed his presence, he was practically like a giant magnet, and all of us around him felt this unavoidable urge to go near him, to greet him, to salute him, and even to shake hands with him, in the hope that somehow something might rub off on us.
Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday May 26, 2018.