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How Tom Wolfe Reinvented Journalism And The Great American Novel


Oooooh nooooooo! Tom Wolfe has died. The author, known for his whiplash, hyperbolic, stream-of-consciousness style, his observational exactitude, his unerring ability to simultaneously evoke and dissect the Spirit of the Age, his relentless skewering of status, ambition and vanity, and, most of all, his deep empathy for the sometimes tiny, but always present, reservoirs of courage, decency, and love even in the most despicable of human hearts, was eighty-eight. He was the creator of such novels as “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” “A Man in Full,” and “Back to Blood,” as well as era-defining, culture-chronicling nonfiction, such as “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” and “The Right Stuff.”

With Wolfe’s passing, America’s greatest contemporary novelist is lost. For the past few decades, there has been no one else doing work on Wolfe’s level. And before resurrecting the American novel from its very cold grave, Wolfe transformed American nonfiction by nearly single-handedly creating the essay style known as the New Journalism and using its interiorized storytelling power to produce works that succinctly and exuberantly examined and diagnosed our age.

Wolfe was sometimes accused of making his scenes up, but he never did. He never lost his newspaperman’s chops and nose for the representative, compelling real-life scene, sequence, or illustrative detail (often coming with a super-shiny brand name), that represented a larger societal growth he wished to poke at. His ultimate goal was to determine if the growth was benign or malignant. Either way, the poking itself was always expertly done and highly entertaining.

Wolfe also blew to smithereens, then rebuilt and transformed, the role of the public philosopher with extremely funny and trenchant works of art and architectural criticism “The Painted Word,” and “From Bauhaus to Our House.” The emperors of the art world loathed him for it. They hated him for not just for pointing out that they had no clothes but also — the cad, the scalawag, the rascal! — drolly mocking them in their preening intellectual nakedness, moral ridiculousness, and utter abandonment of aesthetic judgement.

Reinventing the Novel

In the early 1980s, Wolfe turned to fiction.

Philip Roth famously looked at the Spirit of the Age, or at least watched it on the NBC nightly news, and felt helpless to invent anything that could compare to the weirdness and horror he found there. His answer was to withdraw inside a mental shell and examine his own interior endlessly. Many celebrated contemporary authors followed suit for a time with a stream of psychological rectal exams. Bored with that — and who wouldn’t be after several decades? — they have more recently turned to equally pointless examination of intellectually empty constructs such as race and gender identity — at least when they aren’t busy wanking off to pop culture and creating tedious genre pastiche.

When Tom Wolfe decided to become a novelist, he looked Nietzsche in the eyes — and Nietzsche blinked. He threw himself into the world and found out what to say. “The problem with fiction is it has to plausible,” Wolfe said. “Nonfiction just has to be true.”

He achieved plausibility in the best way. He put in the legwork, the close observation, the carefully considered questions, the listening, the note-taking, the reams and reams of notetaking, the always-and-forever note-taking. And this is why his stylistic innovations were so effective.

And yet, yet, YET — when he turned his hand to fiction, Tom Wolfe transcended his own observations, and in so doing transcended the age he was born to. Again, he did it the difficult, right way. He immersed himself in the setting he intended to write about. For instance, to write “Back to Blood” Wolfe spent five years traveling to and from Miami, living for months there and interviewing everybody in sight, going to every neighborhood.

Wolfe’s supremely empirical approach led him to insights that blew out, burst open, destroyed, OBLITERATED, preconception and pretension. Most critics, especially the ones invested in how smart they are, could never let this go. Hey! HEY! HE’S MAKING FUN OF US!

And so they sought to categorize him as a limited satirist, a conservative scold in an ice cream colored suit, a creator of caricatures and grotesques. To admit that Wolfe was better at character construction than whoever was the current critical darling, would be to admit their greatest fear … WE ACTUALLY ARE … KIND OF RIDICULOUS …

Society and the Individual

Wolfe examined, formed hypotheses, tested them, wrote a prescription, and watched as his patient took the medicine and either got better or died. For Wolfe, identity politics, be it racial, political, or gender-based was just another form of social wag dancing. The individual was what really mattered, and society was often out to get him or her. Wolfe excelled at a zoom lens prose technique for going wide, wider, widest, then zooming in to the most telling personal detail. For all Wolfe claimed to eschew the psychological novel, he was the master of that, too.

Again, some critics couldn’t abide it.

An example is Wolfe’s New York Times obituary, which provides a comprehensive retrospective of Wolfe’s output, but also resurrects the calumnies of jealous mediocrities Norman Mailer and John Irving. Irving, known for works of goofy perfumery such as “The World According to Garp,” does not deserve to be mentioned in the same column-inch as Wolfe, and Mailer, who produced a decent-but-failed Hemingway knock-off in World War II novel “The Naked and the Dead,” and then wrote nothing particularly memorable thereafter, will likely be out of print in a decade or two. Tom Wolfe will still be read.

Wolfe’s great subject is the intersection of society and the individual. God may be dead — the ancient values may be gone, POOF! — but this necessarily leaves guilt everywhere with no way to absolve it. In the elite enclaves of the West, fashion and celebrity become religion. Power politics and environmental extremism replace morality. Art celebrates its own worthlessness.

It’s when his characters, from bond trading Master of the Universe Sherman McCoy to Miami police officer Nestor Camacho, do the right thing, or rather what would have been the right thing once upon a time, that they run athwart of the Spirit of the Age. A Wolfe protagonist starts out engaged in the on-going modern quest for status, money, humping opportunities, entrenched in the desire to find escape from that sinking feeling that each of them is, and always will be, just a bum, a bum only barely fooling everyone, and that they are in every moment on the verge of being found out, of losing EVERYTHING. And, as Wolfe draws us in, we realize — Oh hell. He’s talking about us, too.

Good for What?

Wolfe plays on our own secret megalomaniacal ambitions, tugs at the heartstrings of our empathy and pity, and all the while takes us on a rollercoaster ride of social thrills and terrors. Weaselly Sherman McCoy is at the mercy of his own carefully groomed self-image in “Bonfire of the Vanities.” He is the apex, the epitome, and the embodiment of class status in New York City. It’s only by losing it all that Sherman gains the one thing he lacks when we first meet him: a personality instead of a persona, a soul — even if it is a gritty, bittersweet one.

He even gains the courage (or at least the cajones) to physically defend the judge of his own trial and to stand down an angry mob outside a courtroom with a bat in his hand.

“You outta your mind?” yelled Kovitsky. “You wanna get killed?”

“Judge,” said Sherman, “it don’t matter! It don’t matter!”

He smiled. He could feel his upper lip stretching across his teeth. He let out a short harsh red laugh. Leaderless, the mob in the corridor held back, not sure what they were dealing with.

Sherman sought out their faces, as if to obliterate them with his very eyes. He was terrified — and quite ready! — again! The little band beat a retreat down the marble halls.

Even good guy cop Nestor Comacho in “Back to Blood” starts off as a stew of contradictory impulses. Then Nestor estranges the Hispanic power structure by rescuing, but taking into custody, an illegal alien. Nestor alienates the virtue-signaling Miami progressive elite further by taking down a murderous crack dealer, who is black, with a body slam. Both acts are caught on video and spun into tribal stories so that even Nestor’s own father berates him.

“How could you do that to a man of your own blood? He’s eighteen meters from freedom, and you arrest him! You condemn him to torture and death in Fidel’s dungeons! … Through shit you drag the House of Camacho!”

Wolfe’s protagonists initially seem to be in possession of the world, or at least they think they are, but never in possession of themselves. They sooner or later lose everything society thinks is worth having. Then, only after Wolfe has wrung every cringe, wince, pang of angst, ounce of schadenfreude, and Job-like existential shudder from us and them, can his characters arrive at the real truth: nothing that society gives them ultimately matters. Only when they admit this, understand it in the deepest possible manner, feel it in the blood, do they earn a measure of redemption and self-respect. And, through them, we can, too.

“I just love all these people,” Wolfe has said. “They catch my eye, and I’m transfixed.”

Wolfe was an unabashedly patriotic American. Where else could a novelist find such splendid material for stories? But this did not dim his critical eye.

“We are in a marvelous position as a nation, we are certainly in a good position,” he once said, “but the question we are so far unable to answer is ‘yes, but good for what?’”

Wolfe provided one answer: good for producing writers like Tom Wolfe. “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” “A Man in Full,” and “Back to Blood” are destined to live on and become part of the American literary canon. (We can allow him one swing and whiff with “I Am Charlotte Simmons.”)

Wolfe’s passing leaves a hole in American culture that is unlikely to be filled anytime soon, especially considering the pipsqueak visionaries and pygmy talents writing fiction today. We truly have gone back to tribalism and groupthink, and the novel, which necessarily turns on an individual view of society and life, is once again in danger of expiring.

Tom Wolfe we cannot do without — and yet we will have to. Weep for contemporary fiction. And add another dead white guy to the hall of American greats.