One of the best moments of my life was getting my first rejection email from Tom Wolfe. I’d sent a gushing fanmail asking him to write an article for the Spectator. He declined in style. Now, typically, I can’t find the message in my inbox. I just remember Wolfe’s tremendous manners, the crazy trademark panache in his punctuation, and that he signed off saying “Keep ’em flying!” The next year, undeterred, I asked him to do an interview. Again, he declined in style.
It’s pathetic that I get such a kick out of being politely told to get lost by a famous man. But I loved Tom Wolfe, and I was strangely knocked by his death last week, as if I knew him when I didn’t.
I loved Wolfe for his wit, his guts, his appearance: that white suit always worn in a way that somehow told you he knew how silly it was. He was playing at being Tom Wolfe, and it was a class act.
Wolfe, more than anyone, pioneered the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s. The new journalists were a bunch of brave American writers who said to hell with the staid conventions of the New York Times, they were going to tell it as they damn well saw it.
Wolfe was the master. At his best, and in his best novels, especially in Bonfire of the Vanities and (the very underrated) I am Charlotte Simmons, he electrifies your imagination. He’s brilliant and never afraid of being funny. Wolfe’s spelling flourishes make me laugh out loud. Take the original title of his essay on car culture in California: “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm).”
The style feels wild, but Wolfe was in fact highly disciplined in his approach. He stuck to his four devices for writing – scene-by-scene construction, full dialogue, that “in-their-mind” third person voice, and acute observation of each person or character’s status-signalling – and turned them into art.
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