After hearing Tom Wolfe had died, I thought of that scene in The Bonfire of the Vanities where master of the universe Sherman McCoy, under arrest, is paraded past reporters with Styrofoam peanuts clinging to his expensive suit.
…They were all over his shirt and pants. The rain was streaming down his forehead and his cheeks. He started to wipe his face, but then he realized he would have to raise both hands and his jacket to do it, and he didn’t want them to see his handcuffs. So the water just rolled down…
No writer was better at using the third-person narrator to get inside the heads of his characters, at using specific details to show their states of mind, at dissecting their passions and pretensions. The fictional Sherman McCoy was no less vividly drawn than the real-life Leonard Bernstein in “Radical Chic,” and the real-life Ken Kesey in The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test.
I was working for a daily newspaper when Bonfire came out. The reporters and editors who actually read books — there were more than a few of us — were only mildly surprised by Wolfe’s seamless transition from nonfiction to fiction. In his nonfiction he combined first-rate reporting with cutting humor, a hyperactive prose style and a talent for socio-historical analysis. In his fiction, he used the same elements.
A lot of journalists back then wanted to write like Wolfe, just like folk musicians in the 1960s wanted to write like Bob Dylan, and short-story writers in the 1990s wanted to write like Denis Johnson.
And so what if Wolfe’s style was inimitable? He inspired a lot of us to find our own paths, to put our era in perspective, and he’s still influencing young writers who aspire to write something more ambitious than nuts-and-bolts journalism.
Footnote: Wolfe once told Rolling Stone: “I’ve taken what I think of as the ‘man from Mars approach’: I’ve just arrived from Mars, I have no idea what you’re doing, but I’m very interested.” Nowhere is this approach more successfully realized than in Acid Test, an amazing piece of journalism-sociology-history that’s still as exciting and insightful as it was when it was first published, fifty years ago.