While Tom Wolfe was not a spring chicken by any stretch of the imagination, the news of his May 14th death served to accent a certain heralding of what they call the end of an era. That era, of course, being the creation and cultivation of New Journalism, and the writers that ascribed to it as freely and unabashedly as Wolfe himself–Joan Didion (above all, always above all…even if she is the favorite author of “influencers” like the caricature presented in Ingrid Goes West), Hunter S. Thompson and, if we must list that wife-stabber, Norman Mailer.
At the forefront of it, however, was Wolfe, most notable with the genre novel that defined the decade of the 60s, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In the quest of New Journalism’s desire to present Truth over Facts (for there is a difference, as any solipsist will tell you), the narrative of the book was centered around Wolfe’s following of Ken Kesey and his various acolytes, a collection from the Island of Misfit Toys. A journey that takes him on a magical mystery tour, of sorts, across the country in a bus called Furthur, where Kesey and his disciples–called the Merry Pranksters–trip on acid and generally garner notoriety for being the reason why the old guard despises the counterculture. That Wolfe was able to capture this moment in time made him not only a master of the very genre that he helmed, but also an invaluable historian. A role he would also fulfill even with his first fiction novel, 1987’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. Serialized in Rolling Stone in 1984 before revisions for publication in ’87, Wolfe’s “quintessential”–as it is often called–portrait of excess in the 1980s (best epitomized by New York City) might even well outweigh American Psycho in terms of iconicness (though Brian De Palma’s film adaptation never gets any love the way Mary Harron’s of American Psycho does–this seems to be the problem with adapting a novel too quickly, e.g. Bright Lights, Big City).
Detailing the archetype of Wall Street success and misery through Sherman McCoy, the narrative addresses racial tensions in a way that few other novels emblematic of this decade do. Wolfe’s title, too, pulls something of a Faulkner (see: The Sound and the Fury) in that it’s culled from something else–the historical event of Girolamo Savonarola’s ordering of the burning of all frivolous items–marks of vanity–in Florence. The bonfire of the vanities, as it was called, took place in 1497. And again, in 1989, with the advent of the 90s and something of a lesser parading of decadence. Long his goal to capture the essence of American society the way William Thackeray did with Vanity Fair (ergo, also not a coincidence that the word “vanity” snuck its way into his own title) in the nineteenth century, Wolfe found himself as the source of praise from the very institution that he had long despised: the “literati.” Of course, that didn’t change anything about what he was going to write in the future, continuing on with a sophomore novel released in 1998, A Man in Full, that the critics were naturally not half as praising of, especially since Wolfe waited over ten years to put out another work of fiction–thus, the anticipation/reality factor. Wolfe’s subsequent two novels, I Am Charlotte Simmons and Back to Blood, are also highly political in nature, the former focused on American university life through, once again, the grotesque lenses of sexuality and race, and the latter highlighting Cuban immigrant life in Miami. The large theme of Wolfe’s scant but impressive fictional offerings (four “lengthy” ones in total, just like Thomas Wolfe) has always underscored the injustice not just of living, but of living in the United States, that great beacon of hypocrisy when it comes to championing freedom for all, but with the asterisk: *with money and the correct skin tone.
Hence, one could say that all that time spent being “un-creative” with his non-fiction works led Wolfe to create the realest of fiction. After all, he was the man who proved that there is no truth–no “story”–stranger than fiction, and that to discount this form of writing (“rehashing” as it is sometimes derogatorily referred to) is to epitomize the unnecessary snobbishness of those who have strict parameters regarding what’s literary and what isn’t.