I was not, alas, close to Tom Wolfe. I knew him only slightly: I saw him at occasional parties and dinners at his Upper East Side haunts, including the Lotos Club, where a glorious full-length portrait of him hangs in the lobby. I went to a few shindigs at his beautifully appointed apartment decorated with German Expressionist posters. But I am nevertheless devastated by his passing. It seems inconceivable that the gaudy spectacle of America can continue to unfold without the man in white chronicling its highs and lows.
Wolfe was often described as a master of verbal pyrotechnics, and so he was. His style — all that onomatopoeia, all those punctuation marks — was easy to imitate but hard to master. He coined so many terms that are now part of the language: social X-rays, masters of the universe, radical chic, the right stuff, the Me Decade. But it wasn’t just about impressing the reader with his command of English. He used his rococo language to get inside the heads of his characters and reveal what motivated them — which in his telling was, above all, the quest for status.
A passage taken at random from his 1970 essay “Radical Chic” is emblematic of his method:
Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. These are nice. Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts. Very tasty. Very subtle. It’s the way the dry sackiness of the nuts tiptoes up against the dour savor of the cheese that is so nice, so subtle. Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d’oeuvre trail?
I’m not sure if I transcribed the right number of m’s, but I am certain that no one else could have described so vividly the incongruity of African American radicals being feted by the great and good of Gotham.
And speaking of Gotham: A few years ago, I reread “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and was even more impressed by it than when it originally came out in 1987. Back then, I was still a kid in California. Now, having lived in the New York area for nearly a quarter-century, I can attest to the verisimilitude of his descriptions. If there is a greater novel of New York, I don’t know what it is.
His characters — the bond trader Sherman McCoy, going broke on $1 million a year, the louche tabloid hack Peter Fallow, the racial agitator Reverend Bacon, the publicity-besotted D.A. Abe Weiss — were based, for the most part, on real people. Wolfe captured their speech and thought and dress and everything else about them perfectly, as I can attest from having gotten to know a few of his inspirations. I even rented an apartment for a while from Ed Hayes, a friend of Wolfe’s who was the model for Tommy Killian, the streetwise defense lawyer who explains the idea of the Favor Bank: “ ‘Everything in the criminal justice system in New York’ — New Yawk — ‘operates on favors. Everybody does favors for everybody else. Every chance they get, they make deposits in the Favor Bank.’ ”
Wolfe painted an indelible portrait of “the Rome, the Paris, the London of the twentieth century, the city of ambition, the dense magnetic rock, the irresistible destination of all those who insist on being where things are happening.” I have never lived in Atlanta but am told by those who have that Wolfe was equally accurate in portraying that metropolis in “A Man in Full” — a feat that was, if anything, even more impressive given that Wolfe was not a resident of that city.
Like many people, I regard “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” the definitive portrait of New York in the 1980s, as one of Wolfe’s two masterpieces. The other was “The Right Stuff,” which was made into a much better movie than “Bonfire.” Wolfe got inside the minds of test pilots and astronauts in a way that no other writer has done before or since. The opening chapter, focused on the anxiety of the pilots’ wives who don’t know if their husbands will come home from work, instantly transported the reader to a psychological reality far removed from the glossy news coverage of the space program. The narrative was utterly seamless — as befits the New Journalism that Wolfe helped create, it read like a novel — and yet no one ever claimed that he made it up. There was a sturdy skeleton of reporting, invisible to the reader, upon which Wolfe hung his peerless prose.
Having gotten to know Wolfe a bit, I saw something of his method. He hid in plain sight — his three-piece white suits served as a shield that made the man within nearly invisible. To the extent that anyone so flamboyantly attired can recede into the background, he did. Wolfe did not talk much; he preferred to listen and to soak in the atmosphere. A quiet man, he did his talking in print. And now he has gone silent forever. American literature — and American life — will be the poorer without him.