Tom Wolfe, at 48, having just completed a 15-year star turn as Mr. Zeitgeist, starts to grin, his whole face scurrying with delight, his hands waving over the calamari he's ignoring in this Italian restaurant at 61st and Third. It's as if his whole body, in fact, has become the lightbulb that cartoonists put over the heads of people getting an inspiration -- a notion that is helped along by the fact that he is wearing one of his Tom Wolfe standard-issue outrage suits, three pieces of rescue-yellow silk blazing away on this rain-spattered Manhattan afternoon.
"No one," he says, "has ever been injured in a literary fistfight in New York! No one! The worst one was between Hemingway and Max Eastman. Eastman had attacked 'Death in the Afternoon' with a piece called 'Bull in the Afternoon.' They ran into each other in Maxwell Erkins' office at Scribner's. Hemingway threw the first punch, they sort of grappled with each other, then both of them fell down like . . . like beached whales gasping for breath on the rug! Perkins was worried he was going to have a double coronary case right there in his office!"
Wolfe's excitement is a little startling. It may be the hallmark of his wardrobe, and of the pyrotechnic iconoclasms he's been publishing since his first book in 1965, "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamlined Baby," but personnaly, he's another matter entirely. To judge from his clothes and prose, in fact, Wolfe would seem to have modeled himself after the little boy who points out that the emperor has no clothes, having spiced the situation by dressing as an outlandish dandy, himself.
But in conversation, Wolfe is very much the soft-spoken Virginia gentleman. His face, boyish for decades, now has crows' feet fanning from the eyes, the nose is lengthening, the hair graying, until he suggests a bemused and fascinated vole. After 45, said Auden, every man is responsible for his own face. Wolfe's betrays the chronic delight of a first-rate angle player.
Every time I go into the intellectual arena, the reaction is outrage in the extreme," he says. Granted. Though no one has ever been injured in a literary fistfight in New York.
Then it starts, the angle playing, the three-cushion bank shots: "They can do a lot more than the government to hurt you. What risk is there in attacking the government? There are people who make full-time livings attacking the CIA and the FBI, and nothing ever happens to them. But the intellectuals bite back, they can write bad things about you."
Here, of course, Wolfe is not only ignoring intellectuals' patron demon, Joe McCarthy, but he's attacking their secret pride that they risk, their lives and careers with every dissenting article, petition and phone call.
Wolfe puts himself in the position of being just a simple country boy, a wide-eyed kid from Richmond who has to keep fending off these cowardly big-city bullies -- a wide-eyed kid who happens to come equipped with hand-tailored suits with step-collared vests; custom-designed white toe-cap shoes; a PhD in American studies from Yale; a syntactical fluency and range of references unmatched in journalism; a townhouse on 62nd Street between Second and Third Avenues; a wife who is art director at Harper's magazine . . .
Tom Wolfe is one of your better bank-shot boys.
In a couple of weeks, Wolfe will publish his seventh book, "The Right Stuff," a chronicle of the early days of the space program. In it, he rescues the astronauts from the smarmy beatification the American press -- led by Life magazine -- foisted on the American public. The astronauts, one learns, were gutsy, sexy, go-to-hell fighter pilots, not Henry Luce's private Boy Scout troop. This is vintage Wolfe iconoclasm, fleshed out with vintage Wolfe sociology, physiology and psychology as he points out that the astronauts lived in a world in which bravery was routine, the norm.
However, Wolfe largely eschews the massive fireworks-finale prose that has studded his earlier work.
"I read over the earlier stuff I'd published about the astronauts in Rolling Stone and decided the wound-up tone wasn't appropriate. I simply had to lay it down, tell the story. I couldn't even use scene-by-scene techniques," he says, referring to one of the realistic-fiction techniques he brought to journalism, thereby helping create what was known, for a while, as "The New Journalism."
In an introduction to a book of the same name, Wolfe went so far as to say that nonfiction had replaced the novel as "the main event" of literature. That was in 1973.
The novel has not regained its old prestige, but the new barbarians of the new journalism have been strangely quiet lately. Hunter Thompson and Gay Talese have published next to nothing for years. Truman Capote, Terry Southern and Joe Eszterhas are occupied with other interests (these names are taken from contributors to the new journalism anthology); Michael Herr seems to have put most of his energy into his brilliant "Dispatches" most of which he wrote more than 10 years ago, though Norman Mailer has a new book coming out on Gary Gilmore and Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne keeping writing in California.
But Wolfe himself has had to ease back on the technical extravaganzas, the incredible lists: "Ten o'clock Sunday morning in the hills of North Carolina. Cars, miles of cars, in every directions, millions of cars, pastel cars, aqua green, aqua blue, aqua beige, aqua buff, aqua dawn, aqua dusk, aqua Malacca, Malacca lacquer, Cloud lavender, Assassi pink, Rake-a-Cheek raspberry, Nude Strand coral, Honest Thrill orange and Fawn Lust cream-colored cars are all going to the stock car races."
This was full-cry Wolfe beginning a piece on a stock-car racer named Junior Johnson, back in the 1960s, back when the New York literati assured themselves that Wolfe couldn't last, it was just a bag of tricks, a latter-day barbaric yawp, as Whitman termed his own endless cataloging and celebration of American culture. Except that Wolfe wasn't limning the common man, Whitman style.
He was writing about the postwar explosion of extravagance and artifice in the richest nation in history; about vanity in all its permutations from flat-out narcissism ("The Me Decade,") to bravery (stock-car racing or astronauts) to rich liberals trying to win credentials as, well, Whitman-esque common people, in "Radical Chic."
"What does one wear to these parties for the Panthers or the Young Lords or the grape workers? What does a woman wear? Obviously one does not want to wear something frivolously and pompously expensive, such as a Gerard Pipart party dress. On the other hand one does not want to arrive 'poor mouthing it' in some outrageous turtleneck and West Eighth Street bell-jean combination . . . "
There Wolfe is, yawping like the Noble Savage, but the subject is a party at Leonard Bernstein's house, birthplace of a phrase that crystalized a whole phenomenon: Radical Chic. Wolfe has that knack, the "Me Decade" being another contribution to the language. Even when the phrases don't attain national currency, he writes them as if they already had, one favorite locution usually beginning with "in the style known as" followed by a Wolfe neologism such as "Hog-Stomping Baroque."
"I didn't get into the clothing until I was at Washington & Lee," Wolfe says, still forgoing the calamari to spiel away about courage, intellectuals, rednecks, the exact inventory of furniture in an apartment he rented once in Springfield, Mass., where he went to write for the Springfield Union newspaper after grad school.
Wolfe, the son of an agronomist, grew up in Richmond and went to St. Christopher's School, a private day school. He was accepted at both Princeton and Washington & Lee University.
"I decided on Washington & Lee. The people seemed nicer."
That reasoning, back in the '50s, would have been meaningless in the North, where you didn't go to college to be nice, you went to scrabble and climb and sneer and get a hot-shot job on Madison Avenue, or in the CIA, or be a doctor or lawyer.
But Wolfe, the Southern boy, chose W&L, where one night he saw a movie called "Kiss of Death," starring Richard Widmark and gangsters wearing black shirts and white ties. Wolfe liked those shirts. He went out and bought some, even wore them. Up North, of course, his fellow club members would have had a little talk with him about these black shirts, but down South, where the British tradition of genteel eccentricity still lives, he was just Tom, and isn't he something in those shirts?.
Sure enough, the trip north to Yale grad school proved nearly fatal.
"It was the one time in my life I was really stuck,' he says now, blinking and pondering with his happy grace. "I couldn't stand out because everybody was eccentric in graduate school. They had everything from genuine dirty-neck Bohemians to true British fops. Everybody was for Stevenson (in 1956) but I couldn't come out for Eisenhower. I did make up a story, though, that Eisenhower read seven foreign-language newspapers every morning. Towards the end of my five years there, I started growing my hair long. That was the best I could do."
After a few years with the Springfield Union, Wolfe joined The Washington Post, where his career took a stunning plunge from Latin American correspondent to covering sewer hearings in Virginia. He also discovered the bizarre mutations that postwar affluence was taking.
"They sent me out to Oxon Hill because there was an escaped ape going down the phone wires hand over hand. Somebody in the neighborhood turned out to have a female ape to tempt it down with. It turned out there were people with all kinds of pets out there, apes, carnivorous fish . . . one family owned a tapir. A tapir! You know what a tapir is? It's sort of a combination (and here again Wolfe goes to the syntactical well) of a hamster and a rhinoceros! A great ungainly thing . . . I began to get fascinated with the bizarre things that cropped up with the new affluence. When I came back from Cuba, they asked me what I'd like to do next, and I said I'd like more ape stories."
In fact, people who knew Wolfe back then claim it was the malevolence and ignorance of some old-time editors that drove Wolfe out. But Wolfe, lounging behind the gladiolus and the calamari, is too good an angle player to put the ball in the historical pocket quite that simply. Instead, as he tells it, he was just a country boy too ignorant to know that asking for ape stories instead of foreign assignments was a sure ticket to the sewer hearing.
But wasn't he right? Wasn't there a huge phenomenon to be explored, especially by a first-rate three-cushion man?
He got his chance at the New York Herald Tribune, where he was assigned to write three days a week for the Sunday magazine, which ultimately became New York magazine. The Tom Wolfe style, as it's known today, began with a free-lance piece for Esquire about custom cars.
Wolfe couldn't write it, was completely blocked. His editor told him to type his notes in a letter, and somebody else would rewrite it. "Inside a couple of hours, typing along like a madman, I could tell that something was beginning to happen," as he wrote in his introduction to "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby," which was also the title of the Esquire piece. Wolfe had basically cut loose with all of his huge range of references, his capacity for extracting meaning from mammoth lists of details, his Southern eccentric's perverse delight in detonating all the old Puritan virtues of Strunk & White prose. Esquire took off the salutation on top of the letter and ran it as was.
Wolfe got famous, fast. And he was still wearing the clothes, the custom shirts, the handmade suits.
"I thought everyone would dress that way in New York," says the angle player, the country boy. "I honestly thought that when I got here I'd see Mark Hellinger walking up Broadway in a white panama suit."
Wolfe's enemies came to include a fair chunk of the New York intellectural/literary axis, the New Yorker and the New York Review crowd, among others -- plus every newspaper editor and English teacher who thinks that E. B. White and George Orwell are the last word in prose styles.
If these New York enemies had merely sat back, looked at Wolfe prancing by like some caped relic of the Mauve Decade and said "Aint' he something, sho 'nuff" Wolfe might well have gone back to Richmond, where, as at Washington and Lee, the people were nicer.
Instead, of course, they attacked.
Dwight MacDonald and The New York Review of Books accused him of being a "parajournalist" after his spoof of The New Yorker appeared; radically chic liberals went berserk over his account of the Bernstein party; art critics gathered the wagons in a circle to blaze away at "The Painted Word," Wolfe's discussion of abstract art.
Wolfe hit right back, going for the biggest icons, such as Walter Lippmann. "For 35 years Lippmann seemed to do nothing more than ingest The Times every morning, turn over in his ponderous cud for a few days, and then methodically egest it in the form of a drop of mush on the foreheads of several hundred thousand readers of other newspapers in the days thereafter."
Sometimes the flap was big enough to hurt -- the New Yorker spoof was never anthologized, for instance. But Wolfe has sailed along undeterred, though waning from his prodigious early output, when he was writing 20 magazine pieces a year. According to Clay Felker, who edited him at New York magazine, when Wolfe wrote his first magazine series on Ken Kesey, later to be published as "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," the circulation of the World Journal Tribune, into which the Herald Tribune had merged, rose on those Sundays from 900,000 to 1.2 million.
The trick was to keep the Southern eccentric game going -- keep just enough distance to maintain the bemused detachment but stay close enough not to miss anything. It is the classic journalist's pose and dilemma.
"When I was writing 'The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,' I arranged to get some acid," he says now, in the same tone he might use to talk about ordering a rare first edition from a British bookseller. "I had a terrible time the first three hours. I thought my heart was larger than my body, somehow, and I was having a heart attack . . . aneurism . . . fibrillation" and he pulls back from the verge of one of his patented Tom Wolfe anatomy lists, sclerotic hematoma subdural ganglion synapse hormone rachitic edema . . . Anyhow the rest of the trip was hardly better. Acid destroys all vantage point, and vantage point is the rock on which the eccentric's life is founded. "I was in a room with a nubbly twist rug, with the little tips sticking up. And the afternoon sun was shining off the tips. I began to feel I had merged with them, and somehow through that I'd learned all about the common people of America. I'd almost merged with them, too."
Once in Oregon, at Ken Kesey's place, Wolfe, in a favorite brown tweed suit, was standing with his notebook while Kesey and a friend struggled to move a big sculpture.
"Kesey finally looked at me and said 'Tom, put down that notebook and give us a hand.' Well, they'd painted the sculpture with the wrong paint, and it hadn't dried. I grabbed it and got my shoulder covered with paint."
He stares earnestly across the calamari, the red gladiolus, patting his left shoulder, his face pickling with dismay at the memory.
"I was berserk, I was confused. I grabbed this big thing of turpentine and was sloshing it over my shoulder, I was very angry and upset. Then Kesey walked over, he was enjoying the whole thing. And he smiled and said: 'If you mess around with s-- - some of it's going to rub off on you.'"
Then again, that rule cuts both ways. A lot of Wolfe has rubbed off on us, too. Wolfe, among a few others, broke an unwritten law and packed his stories with brand names, the Rake-a-Cheek syndrome; now everybody wears them on their neckties, socks, shirts -- LaCoste, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent.Stereotyping from tiny details became a national sport, as in a period a few years ago when everybody was dropping "Pickup trucks with gunracks in the back" to demonstrate that they understood about rednecks. Journalists can write stories in the historical present, not done much before, but common now.
"The currency of my style has become debased," Wolfe says, adding at the same time, that whenever he has read stuff written in frank imitation of him, "I've always thought it was very good." Such an ego!
It is wonderfully huge. "I always tried to avoid writing about famous people," he says. "I was afraid that readers would like the pieces for their subjects, not for my writing."
He has survived the '70s nicely, writing for Harpers, and finally finishing "The Right Stuff" after six years of work. He has finished a period in which he wore nothing but white suits, winter and summer. He owns a big townhouse, he serves on the board of governors of St. Christopher's School, back in Richmond. He's working now on a follow-up to "The Painted Word." It's an examination of the stylistic imperatives behind serious dance, music and architecture.
Wolfe is asked who, of anyone in the world, he would most appreciate a compliment from. After all, at 48, with the critical heavies still lined up against him, he might have started hungering for a touch of acclaim, like poor old John O'Hara watching the prizes pass him by year after year.
The answer is instant. "Malcolm Muggeridge," he says.
This is ridiculous. Muggeridge, the raving gadfly, the Jesus freak, the bad guy of contemporary British letters? Yes.
"He's really too much," Wolfe says. "I feel an affinity for him. He's willing to mock the world we inhabit, the world of journalists and writers and intellectuals. He's known for the mocking of popular British institutions. He wrote a piece for the Saturday Evening Post about Churchill being so senile he could hardly lift his hand up to give the victory sign." And here Wolfe smiles past a victory sign he has lifted himself. "But he always attacked popular figures in the popular press and intellectual ones in places like the New Statesman, where, he'd go after Stravinsky, Picasso and Freud."
After all, no one has ever been injured in a literary fistfight in New York. Though once, Wolfe referred to former light heavyweight boxing champion Jose Torees, who is a friend of Norman Mailer and other New York literati, as a "pet primitive."
"I was at Elaine's one night, and he was there," Wolfe says. "I was just leaving when he came up to me, got very close and said: 'Pet primitive.' And that was all," Wolfe says, duplicating his dung-eating grin of that awful moment, Torres ready and able to unload about 47 punches on him in the next three seconds.
"I just backed away. I wanted no part of that. I don't know if he was serious, but I wasn't staying around to find out," Wolfe says with a curious return to his private, musing smile again, as if to say, when are they going to realize that I'm the town eccentric? When are they going to stop taking it all so seriously?