Tom Wolfe died Monday. It was his 88th birthday. The reason Wolfe was such a great reporter and novelist was that he was an acute observer of people. He was not interested in people who were just like him. His interests lay in telling the stories of quirky people in wildly different walks of life in his uniquely zippy prose style. For example, he had little in common with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters but he preserved their spirit for the ages. This quote captures his spirit of literary adventure:
“To me, the great joy of writing is discovering. Most writers are told to write about what they know, but I still love the adventure of going out and reporting on things I don’t know about.”
Reading all the tributes reminded me of how Wolfe’s vivid and lively prose influenced me as a writer. There’s a major exception. I hate exclamation points and Wolfe oversalted his writing with them:
“People complain about my exclamation points, but I honestly think that’s the way people think. I don’t think people think in essays; it’s one exclamation point to another.”
Since his stuff had the right stuff, it was easy for me to forgive the wild punctuation. Wolfe not only delivered the goods, he always made me laugh. His book titles were as amusingly flamboyant as his punctuation: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers, From Bauhaus To Our House, and his fictional masterpiece, The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Wolfe’s politics listed to the center right but he was a satirist and iconoclast, not an ideologue. He was a natural-born contrarian, if there was a conventional wisdom on a subject, he mocked it. Even his clothing reflected his worldview:
But as an unabashed contrarian, he was almost as well known for his attire as his satire. He was instantly recognizable as he strolled down Madison Avenue — a tall, slender, blue-eyed, still boyish-looking man in his spotless three-piece vanilla bespoke suit, pinstriped silk shirt with a starched white high collar, bright handkerchief peeking from his breast pocket, watch on a fob, faux spats and white shoes. Once asked to describe his get-up, Mr. Wolfe replied brightly, “Neo-pretentious.”
Wolfe got his start as a magazine writer, primarily for New York Magazine. I first read The Right Stuff when it was serialized in Rolling Stone Magazine. I recall eagerly awaiting the arrival of each issue to get the straight poop on the Mercury astronauts. It made me feel like a throwback to the days of Trollope, Dickens, and Zola who published their major works in the same way. Speaking of Zola, here’s what Wolfe had to say about the fierce French realist:
My idol is Emile Zola. He was a man of the left, so people expected of him a kind of ‘Les Miserables,’ in which the underdogs are always noble people. But he went out, and found a lot of ambitious, drunk, slothful and mean people out there. Zola simply could not – and was not interested in – telling a lie.
It’s odd to have had so much fun researching a tribute to a recently dead writer but I had a blast visiting quote web sites and reading some of Wolfe’s tastiest bon mots. It’s made easier by the fact that the man lived such a long, eventful, and witty life. As a close friend of mine observed after attending his elderly grandmother’s funeral, “That was the period at the end of the sentence. You only use an exclamation point when it’s someone who was too young to die.”
I’m not certain that Tom Wolfe would agree with that sentiment but I’m writing this piece, not him. He does, however, get the last word. Make that last words.
We begin this section with some pithy quotes, followed by short excerpts from some of Wolfe’s major works:
“If a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged, a liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested.”
“I have never knowingly, I swear to God, written satire. The word connotes exaggeration of the foibles of mankind. To me, mankind just has foibles. You don’t have to push it!”
“The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction.”
“A cult is a religion with no political power.”
“We are all of us doomed to spend our lives watching a movie of our lives – we are always acting on what has just finished happening.”
― The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
“Sir Gerald Moore: I was at dinner last evening, and halfway through the pudding, this four-year-old child came alone, dragging a little toy cart. And on the cart was a fresh turd. Her own, I suppose. The parents just shook their heads and smiled. I’ve made a big investment in you, Peter. Time and money, and it’s not working. Now, I could just shake my head and smile. But in my house, when a turd appears, we throw it out. We dispose of it. We flush it away. We don’t put it on the table and call it caviar.”
― The Bonfire of the Vanities
“Le Corbusier was the sort of relentlessly rational intellectual that only France loves wholeheartedly, the logician who flies higher and higher in ever-decreasing concentric circles until, with one last, utterly inevitable induction, he disappears up his own fundamental aperture and emerges in the fourth dimension as a needle-thin umber bird.”
― From Bauhaus to Our House
“A persistent case of the bingos was enough to wash a man out of night carrier landings. That did not mean you were finished as a Navy pilot. It merely meant that you were finished so far as carrier ops were concerned, which meant that you were finished so far as combat was concerned, which meant you were no longer in the competition, no longer ascending the pyramid, no longer qualified for the company of those with the right stuff.”
― The Right Stuff
That concludes a tribute with more exclamation points than a year’s worth of Adrastos posts. It was a sacrifice well worth making. In his quirky, contrarian, white-suited way, Tom Wolfe had the right stuff. He will be missed.