Tom Wolfe had only one thing about him that was informal and unfussy in his later life, and that was his first name. The co-founder of “New Journalism”, who has died at the age of 88, spent the last half-century in an ice-cream white suit and a striped shirt, the dead spit of The New Yorker’s pen-and-ink figurehead, Eustace Tilley. It was an unlikely look for the man who had been most associated with the idea of “saturation journalism” and the break-out from the deadened metropolitan style of mid-century reportage.

Wolfe famously “invented” New Journalism in the early ’60s, when he spent weeks covering hot-rod and custom-car rallies in California for New York magazine. Wolfe had taken a then-unusual path to writing, for an establishment kid from Richmond, Virginia, taking a PhD in American Studies, a discipline which emphasised the importance of everyday life. He’d worked in traditional journalism through the 1950s; the custom-car subculture brought him to the crisis moment necessary to innovation. He simply couldn’t shoehorn the wildness of the scene — a sort of transitional moment between the ’50s and ’60s — into the standard form of a “colour” piece. He wrote a long letter to his editor, Clay Felker, describing what he was trying to do, and the editor, as good editors do, simply clipped off the “Dear Clay” salutation, and ran the piece unaltered.

That piece became The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, and the title says it all: two colours, a shape, a metaphor, a double compound adjective, a deliberate misspelling for visual alliteration. It’s poetic prose that is not prose poetry (thank God), and it came from the anthropological training that Wolfe had gained. His “saturation journalism” — where you spend so long with someone they forget you’re there, and become themselves — was “participant observation”; his style was drawn from what anthros call “thick description”, getting it all down, actively switching off the desire to synthesise, abstract and “understand” something.

A conservative among radicals, as the culture of the 1960s became increasingly anti-American he could gain a critical distance from it. His best work was done at the cross-over point: riding the bus across America with the “Merry Pranksters” — Neal Cassady, Ken Kesey, other post-Beats and hippies — whose edge cut with and against the American grain; and attending a fundraising party that Leonard Bernstein put on for the Black Panthers at their Manhattan apartment, at which the Panthers roundly assailed the white liberal guests for their racism, and scored big.

That last episode became a book — Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, heh — and his last good non-fiction one. It was a disaster for the Panthers, who were principally a Californian social movement among the black poor, some of whose young leaders had become too caught up in a “radical chic” (Wolfe’s phrase). I’m sure nothing like that is happening here, now.

After that, he showed more of a talent for phrasemaking than advancing an argument. He saw how the ’60s collapsed into the ’70s, named the latter “the me decade”, wrote two terrible books on architecture and abstract art, and a Reaganesque boys adventure on test pilots, a manifesto on the need for a return to “literary realism”, and from that created one good, readable novel (The Bonfire of the Vanities), and several groaningly large ho-hum ones. At that point, a lot of people realised something: Tom Wolfe wasn’t that bright.

In railing against writers such as Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis for their “obscurantism” he revealed that he never understood the point David Foster Wallace would later make in his essay “E Unibus Pluram” — that, in a media-saturated postmodern consumer culture, inclusive realism couldn’t look anything like the realist novel of the bourgeois era, because the real had been infiltrated by the imaginary. Infinite Jest is the great realist novel of late-20th century America; Bonfire is a cartoon.

Wolfe’s last book was his worst, The Kingdom of Speech, a contribution to that burgeoning genre of the kooky-right: attacks on Noam Chomsky, not for his politics, but for his vastly influential linguistics theories, by people who are not themselves linguistics-trained. Anti-Darwinian to boot, it marked Wolfe’s fall into the cultish American tea-party right subculture; inevitably so perhaps, since they were the true heirs of the Yippies — the political hippies — Wolfe had reported on and helped make famous, now bringing tricorn hats and muskets to Walmart car parks. Tom Wolfe had come home, in a white suit, but no angel. The full name had been barred to him because of the great ’30s novelist, who, like his successor, had tried to write all of America down, all of life down. But Thomas Wolfe’s true successor is Hunter S. Thompson, a writer for the ages; Wolfe the younger’s writing has not aged at all well.

But the example remains. Read a lot of stuff and of different types and textures. Get out among something you don’t understand and be with it for a while. Never lose your sense of the absurd, but nor your capacity for sympathy across worlds; notice the things themselves, the colours, shapes, smells, sounds, timbres, styles of the real; let the demands of the content provoke you to an impasse of form from which new forms can emerge. God knows what would happen if the MSM and the media courses did that instead of spruiking the deadened churn and straitjacket featurism that passes for mainstream journalism today. People might start reading them again. Ha ha Tom Wolfe, rest in power — the sort of bullshit phrase you would have filleted clean, O pioneer!

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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