The words “icon” and “legend” are routinely overused and undervalued these days. Especially when applied to pop culture which, by definition, doesn’t have to stand the test of time. Then there are those whose credentials predate yesterday and remain resonant. To wit: the late, alas, Tom Wolfe.
He had the right writer stuff. He chronicled this country as a newspaper reporter, as an essayist, as a magazine feature writer and as a novelist. He was a pop sociologist, a dapper, societal presence, a national treasure and an absolute American icon.
If you were a journalism student in the 1970s, he was in your instructor’s wheelhouse. And then in yours. Wolf introduced us to the concept of literary journalist. Where a reporter with an eye for absorbing detail, an ear for compelling dialogue and an ethic for background research could carve out a niche without feeling inferior to novelists. That niche was writing journalism that read like a novel. Tone and mood mattered.
Take that Norman Mailer. William Saroyan. John O’Hara. James Baldwin. No laurel resting allowed.
Back in the day I read “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” the tale of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters who only did road trips if they were tripping on hallucinogens. It was a fun read, even if it did constantly remind you that you were only wired on caffeine.
Then came “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers.” It was Wolfe at his insightful, inciting best. Where news–as in Leonard Bernstein’s high-society, New York fund-raiser for the Black Panthers and the practiced approach of San Francisco activists to intimidate government bureaucrats–met politics met best media forum for capturing the confrontations and their quirky characters.
When I read a recent news item about Publix contributions to Adam Putnam’s gubernatorial campaign and how it would equal the cost of 74,527 chicken tender subs, I thought of Wolfe. These kind of over-the-top equivalences are common today. They weren’t when Wolfe was doing his often hilarious pioneering analogies.
On the occasion of Wolfe’s passing, I re-read “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.” It still holds up, even in paperback. The former is devastatingly funny. The latter, a probing exercise in orchestrated militant theatrics. Reliving the experience was like re-watching “The Graduate.” It still transcends generations as it trenchantly dissects societal subcultures.
You don’t just read Wolfe. You re-read passages, marvel at lengthy quotes chronicled without a tape recorder, savor it all and read parts out loud to your wife.
After “The Right Stuff,” Wolfe became renowned for “Bonfire of the Vanities” and “A Man in Full,” most notably the former. It was fitting, final-chapter testimony to his outrageous versatility as he morphed from culture-capturing, hybrid journalist to one of his generation’s finest novelists.
But nothing beats “New Journalism”: Wolfe’s uncanny eye for lifestyles, his biting social commentary, his mimicry of speech patterns. Also his sense of what was happening in–and to–America was profound. He was an iconic game changer.