A Farewell to Tom Wolfe, My Journalism Dad

Books Features Tom Wolfe
A Farewell to Tom Wolfe, My Journalism Dad

Tom Wolfe, the captain of New Journalism, is dead.

Let’s start with his clothes. With him, it was forever about clothes. If he was writing this, that’s how he’d begin. For he ranked status, and status details, over all else.

The author always wore white. Wedding cake white! Antique white! Ghost white! Never white the color of cheap cigar ashes, but a snowy, resplendent white. Slacks white, vest white, coat white and, eventually, hair white.

The clothes were only the most outward manifestation of the man. Tom Wolfe’s real armor was the ironic, smiling sentiment in the air around him. And the eternal question: Is he putting us on?

I still wonder: Is he? The man’s apparently deceased, but can we be sure he’s not on the job? He always did his best reporting from a nose-length away. How do we know he’s not on assignment? Can we be sure Wolfe isn’t trawling the Underworld? I can see the man now, scribbling curlicues on his notepad: “Positioning in the Underworld—very serious—infernal stuff—desperately needed.”

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You have to understand the legend of Tom Wolfe. In the Thirties, a Virginia editor begets a son, Wolfe, who starts writing early on, gets his PhD from Yale and ends up in New York City reporting for one of the great dying newspapers of the day, the Herald Tribune. Wolfe trudges along, a gifted lumpen-reporter swinging at stories…until one day in 1962 he’s assigned a profile on California hot-rod culture. He can’t get it right, and so he sends the Editor his notes. And wouldn’t you know it? They get printed! Neologisms—weird punctuation—onomatopoeia—it’s a smash. Wolfe gets assigned profiles of big-daddy society belles and stock car drivers, and then he lands a piece on the quintessence of Manhattan life, The New Yorker! And he demolishes it. He becomes the beloved object of a literary cult that spreads nationwide.

As the years roll on, Wolfe preaches the electric gospel of New Journalism—reporting using literary techniques—which he and Jimmy Breslin and Gail Sheehy and Hunter S. Thompson and pretty much any other gifted nonfiction Boomer journalist uses to leer carnivorously at an unsuspecting world. Newspaper editors and grey-type periodicals stir from their dull corners in Indiana and Ohio and Washington, as wild clatters of cascading sentences of exuberant prose pour out over the nation: “My God—what is that?”

Of course, Americans have been publishing hyperbolic nonfictional paragraphs since Mark Twain crawled up from the belly of the Mississippi. But still! It’s Wolfe who seeds the ground. In 1965, Wolfe has the temerity to write about The New Yorker’s stories: “The scene is some vague exurb or country place or summer place, something of the sort, cast in the mental atmosphere of tea cozies, fringe shawls, Morris chairs, glowing coals, wooden porches, frost on the pump handle, Papa out back in the wood bin, leaves falling, buds opening, bird-watcher types of birds, tufted grackles and things, singing, hearts rising and falling, but not far”—my God, it’s as if he’s punched the Pope.

The howls this raises! The Powers That Be descend upon Wolfe, from every direction. And here he is, a few years later, throwing lightning from his hands, lancing the elite, looking hard at modern love, bottling Chuck Yeager, dishing on everyone and everything. Then, just after finishing The Right Stuff in 1979, he goes away to write Bonfire of the Vanities, his first novel. And my God, they have him now, don’t they, the literary establishment? But here Wolfe returns on the back of the Spirit of the Age, going by-zzZZAAAAOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM! And it’s a bestseller! The critics love him! Wolfe rides again!

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I “met” him on November 2, 1998, when he appeared on Time magazine’s cover—the one where he smiled down at us, a god from Olympus. His first novel in years, A Man in Full, was about to be published. I read about him in my parent’s house in Lubbock, Texas. It was the Nineties.

Who in the fresh hell was this posing, preening gallivant? Who, indeed, was this winsome bard being praised by, of all things, a mass market publication? He wasn’t a President or a jowly magnate or whatever pop-scholar the Establishment was currently crushing on. Who was Tom Wolfe? Writers were not praised on magazine covers. It wasn’t done. And yet here stood this ice cream-suited mutant, imported from another century, smirking at me.

In 1998, Wolfe was still on his post-Eighties free glide. He wasn’t the It Writer of the moment…that honor had landed in the lap of a Midwestern teacher named David Foster Wallace, who’d published Infinite Jest two years before. But Wolfe was still Relevant. I had no use for what Wallace had called the phallocrats of the postwar: Roth, Mailer and Christ’s own Vicar of New England, Updike. So imagine me reading Wolfe and seeing the light! I read everything he wrote.

Journalism, I decided, was the thing. Wolfe convinced me, and a generation of Americans, that it was the Place To Be. Nobody got the memo that the American Press was dying. Awkward, that. Wolfe missed that notice, and for a very good reason: none of his post-Eighties nonfiction is worth reading. He stopped being interested in anything except the lives of very rich people. And it showed. As he himself said, in one of his most hilariously awful essays: “After all, having the faintest notion of what you were talking about was irrelevant.”

Wolfe was born a reactionary and died one. Yet Michael Lewis, who wrote a profile of Wolfe for Vanity Fair in 2015, noted the man’s curious doubleness:

He dresses exotically and is talented and intellectually powerful, like the sophisticates in the bubble. But he isn’t really one of them. To an extent that shocks the people inside the bubble, when they learn of it, he shares the values of the hinterland. He believes in God, Country, and even, up to a point, Republican Presidents. He even has his doubts about the reach of evolutionary theory.

This is the double-edged sword of loving Wolfe. No modern American writer was more careful in his observations and sloppier in his conclusions. Wolfe was a prodigy-hustler of the short-term. Rational, studied, deep-set truth was not Wolfe’s specialty. The zeitgeist was. He understood appearances and excelled at capturing them. Philosophically, he was a clubfooted quadruped.

Time and again, Wolfe made embarrassing errors of reasoning that would have sunk a less gifted writer of prose. To read his comments on history or linguistics or modern art is to encounter a gold-leaf shallowness that is practically Trumpian. Perhaps that’s why his novels, with the exception of Bonfire, are half-unreadable. Avoid any paragraphs that smack of human interiority, and A Man in Full or I Am Charlotte Simmons are consumable. The author’s understanding of human nature was about a millimeter deep, and his grasp of the world childed as he grandfathered.

Wolfe covered it up with a river of snappy prose, but his beliefs, from beginning to end, were that of the mid-century Virginia white gentry. Wolfe was a Southern burgher to his bones. He had most of Mencken’s unthinking bigotries and McCarthy’s politics. After 1987, he saw nothing coming. Wolfe was still puttering about the Golden Age of the Pax Americana and endless electrician prosperity right before the collapse of the whole world in 2008. Of course he could be on the cover of Time back in 1998. It was a Wolfean age.

I knew what Wolfe was. And despite it, I still adored him. That’s why I’ve aped him in this piece. How else could I pay him tribute?

Frankly, he was the North Star for me as a nonfiction writer. There was direction in his lack of light. There were three big-book heartthrobs I fell for as a teenager, when you get poetry deep in the glands. I started reading Shakespeare seriously when I was 13. That was the sun. I picked up Alan Moore when I was 15. That was the moon. And Tom Wolfe arrived when I was 18. The stars. And that was it for me: full-tilt, no-kidding, high-octane love. His beliefs were nonsense, and his politics were atrocious, but the inconvenient wonder of his words remained. Wolfe was the Nile of the modern maximalist romp in American belles-lettres.

Which is to say my words are only slightly patricidal…because the truth was, Tom Wolfe was my Journalism Dad, and 18-year-old me would never forgive me if I let Wolfe pass without comment.

Wolfe is gone, but not really. Wolfe’s with me now, and he’s with every writer who ever read him. Somewhere in the backcountry road in the hollers of my heart, there he is, strapped to a Roman candle ready to shoot into the deep raw Platonic places where the New Journalism never went out of style. Wolfe, ever the undying reporter, is still chasing the ghost of the true future America like an electric, white-coated, high-rider forever gazing straight into the eternal sunrise of the hog-stomping baroque. Tom!

Jason Rhode has passed the acid test and is the Northern Hemisphere’s leading exporter of radical chic.

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