Tom Wolfe was born on March 2, 1931 in Richmond, VA. He was editor of his high school newspaper and sports editor of his college newspaper. His college professor of American Studies, Marshall Fishwick, stressed looking at the entirety of a culture including its profane aspects. Wolfe's books show how much he took this to heart.
After taking a doctorate in American Studies at Yale, he began his working life as a reporter, working for both The Washington Post and the New York Herald Tribune. One of his first feature articles appeared in Esquire magazine. Covering the hot rod and custom car culture of southern California, it was included in and became the title of his first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. Its appearance in 1965 established Wolfe as a leading writer in what was called the New Journalism. Along with Truman Capote, Hunter S Thompson, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, and others, he combined straight reporting with literary techniques, creating a style which is now known as creative non-fiction, found in books covering science, history, memoir, biography and current events.
Some of Wolfe's now signature elements already appeared in "Kandy- Kolored". It was originally titled "There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," making it Wolfe's first writing to include sound effects. His fascination with the female form was also evident: "Then you notice that all the girls are dressed exactly alike. They have bouffant hairdos - all of them - and slacks that are, well, skin-tight does not get the idea across; it's more the conformation than how tight the slacks are. It's as if some lecherous old tailor with a gluteus-maximus fixation designed them, striation by striation."
Wolfe published 11 volumes of non-fiction between 1965 and 1982, possibly the most well known being The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in 1968. Though he claims never to have ingested LSD, he captured the California psychedelic scene, the escapades of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, their Day-Glo bus and Acid Tests, as well as the response of the "straight" world to such goings-on. Kesey's phrase, "Either you're on the bus or you're off the bus," became common currency among hippies. "The current fantasy" is still used amongst my friends to describe what is going on in the moment. The book itself is evidence that Wolfe had begun to hit his stride with a dense, manic style of maximum reportage.
By the time he began writing fiction, Wolfe was practically a story generating machine. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, his highly acclaimed and bestselling novel of 1987, he unveiled the magic formula: The Scene - New York City. The Conflict - nouveau riche junk bond salesman vs criminals of all skin colors and nationalities from the slums. The Themes - ambition, social class, racism, politics, and greed. The Characters - a WASP, a Jew, a journalist, and a Black Activist Reverend. The Women - over-dieted, over exercised, social "Xrays" or voluptuous, sexy broads. This formula, and these themes, would appear over and over again in Wolfe's work.
In 1989, two years after the publication of his first novel, Tom Wolfe's essay "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast" was published in Harper's Magazine. In it he made an impassioned plea for a return to the realistic novel, defined as fiction that demonstrates the influence of society on the personal life of the individual. His novels are examples of the realistic novel as he sees it, moving through four decades of American life.
Check out a New York Times review of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Photo of Tom Wolfe courtesy of Mark Seliger/AP
This article was originally published in November 2012, and has been updated for the
July 2013 paperback release.
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