Tom Wolfe and the Art of Turning Words Into Weapons

(Bloomberg) -- I’m hoping there’s another Tom Wolfe book out there. A half-finished novel, a collection of new essays and art, some yet-unseen product of that extraordinary talent. I’ve been a Wolfe fan at least since college, and if I cannot lay claim to having read every word he published, the reason is simply that he published so much.

Wolfe, who died this week at the age of 88, was one of the most brilliant wordsmiths of our age, a writer so famous that he featured in an episode of “The Simpsons.” He did with words what others couldn’t.

Whether penning what he considered the big New York novel (“The Bonfire of the Vanities”) or telling us true stories we could find nowhere else (“The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” — sometimes even his titles were tough to follow), he always gave us the realism that he claimed American literature had lost.

Although often teased for his fondness for exclamation points and strange capitalizations, Wolfe could turn a pithy phrase. He coined the term “New Journalism” for the mix of commentary and narrative that characterized some of the best writing of the 1960s. He was if not the originator then certainly the popularizer of the term “Me Decade” to describe the 1980s. In “The Painted Word” he neatly summarized how many laypeople see art snobs: “If you hated it — it was probably great.” And “The Right Stuff” — the title of his book about the Mercury astronauts, to my mind his finest achievement — has become a part of the lexicon.

Wolfe wrote about the present but always kept his eye on the future. “The Pump House Gang” foresaw in the nascent surfer culture the seeds of a casual nonconformity that would ultimately shake the edifices of American life. And, speaking of edifices, his book on architecture, “From Bauhaus to Our House,” although derided by the critics (“Wolfe has no eye,” sniffed the New York Times), correctly predicted the dissolution of the modernist movement, and even of the postmodernism that followed it.

Wolfe’s work was often called satire, but he declined the label. “I hate the term satirist,” he said in a 1992 interview. “I do work that exposes the foibles of the age.” That was his objective, in fiction and nonfiction alike: skewering our verities. Of course that habit got him into a lot of trouble. Consider “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” the 1970 book that made him famous. The volume has been viewed by many as an attack on the rising black activism of the day. But that criticism turns the book inside out. What fascinated Wolfe was the response of white elites to the new activism, their efforts to show support while sacrificing no corner of their privileged lives:

On the other hand — on the second track in one’s mind, that is — one also has a sincere concern for maintaining a proper East Side life-style in New York Society. And this concern is just as sincere as the first, and just as deep. ... For example, one must have a weekend place, in the country or by the shore, all year round preferably, but certainly from the middle of May to the middle of September. It is hard to get across to outsiders an understanding of how absolute such apparently trivial needs are. One feels them in his solar plexus.

Or consider his essay about New York nannies from “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” Wolfe tells us how wealthy Manhattan families begin by dressing their small children so expensively. Then this happens:

The only thing that saves even the wealthiest family from total bankruptcy is that the kids start going to school and watching television, after which they demand dungarees and their tastes in general deteriorate medievally.

Deteriorate medievally. Who else writes like that? Google turns up zero hits that aren’t reprints of the essay. Yet the words are provocative, painting an image of things collapsing, civilization going backward, all of human learning and poise unraveling. All that in two words.

True, a lot of people didn’t care for Wolfe’s style, which involved a good deal of mockery of his targets. Lengthy, relentless mockery. His 2016 book “The Kingdom of Speech,” an attack on aspects of evolution and on the notion that our species is hard-wired for the spoken word, deserved a better fate than being skewered in the Washington Post for relying “on sarcasm rather than data.” One could tell that the reviewer was offended by Wolfe’s style, which always made his criticisms seem personal.

But they weren’t. Although I met Wolfe only a handful of times, I can testify to both his breadth of learning and his unfailing courtesy. At a Manhattan book party a few years ago, we spent a half-hour together, and that brief conversation made plain that he read as voraciously as he wrote, for there was little serious work he seemed to have missed. Yet when discussing those with whom he disagreed, he was never disagreeable.

How could so civil a man mock others so relentlessly? Once we understand where Wolfe cut his eyeteeth as a writer, maybe we’ll be able to see how he never meant the personal personally. Let’s pluck a few phrases from a well-known letter to Wolfe from Hunter S. Thompson, a fellow member of the New Journalism pack: “You swine ... You decadent pig ... You thieving pile of albino warts!” — and Thompson was a close friend. This is how Wolfe and his confreres got on together, inventing clever new over-the-top insults and hurling them heedlessly. Probably they all spent a lot of time ducking. To call it “boys being boys” would be to miss the point. Wolfe came of age as part of a group of highly skilled writers who understood the power of words and proved it by using them creatively as cudgels. We might call it word-flogging.

In the hands of today’s vulgar and amateurish practitioners of the art, the point of weaponizing words is to insult your adversary into submission. But true word-floggery was different. It was aimed at forcing the reader’s attention to the prose itself, to keep the tale moving without ever allowing the reader to forget that he was reading. The writer, without ever dropping into the first person, remained as present as the reader, and the reader was delighted to have him along.

Word-flogging is a style that most people nowadays find off-putting, and one that, done poorly, can easily lead to morphological disaster. But it’s also a style that, when executed well, creates magnificent prose. At that art, Tom Wolfe had no peers. His writing, if contrarian, was uniformly brilliant. As much as any writer of the past few decades, he taught us what the English language can do. I don’t think we’ll see his like again.

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