When essayist, novelist, New Journalism pioneer, and perennialy snappy dresser Tom Wolfe passed away last Monday at age of 88, the country lost one of its sharpest observers and most acid-penned social satirists. Throughout his 50-year career, the “laureate of American pop journalism” utilized flamboyant language and explosive punctuation, not to mention a keen eye for detail, to mercilessly caricature the trends and pretensions of those around him. From 1965 to 1981, Wolfe would produce some of his most famous nonfiction books, including The Electric Kool-Aid Test (1968) and The Right Stuff (1979), but it was his bestselling 1987 debt novel The Bonfire of the Vanities—an epoch-defining tale of ambition, racism, social class, politics, and greed in 1980s New York City—that launched him into the literary stratosphere.
In remembering Wolfe, we took a look back through the archives to find the first reviews of what we think are his five most iconic books.
Beg to differ? Let us know in the comments!
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1969)
Everybody, everybody everywhere, has his own movie going, his own scenario, and everybody is acting his movie out like mad, only most people don’t know that is what they’re trapped by, their little script.
“Tom Wolfe is the laureate of American pop journalism. The Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby, a collection of newspaper and magazine articles, published in 1966, was a best seller in the United States and won high critical acclaim and many imitators on this side of the Atlantic. Now comes his first full-length book, a best seller in America, but received here so far with cries of Déjà Lu!
But it has not really been read before; some critics merely have trouble in seeing the message through the thicket of Wolfe’s idiosyncratic style. The book is about Ken Kesey, the American writer, author of the highly successful peyote-inspired novel and Broadway play One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, who while living the successful suburban bohemian life in Stanford, California, volunteered for $75 a day to be an experimental subject for ‘psychomimetic’ drugs and found that LSD made him ‘see into people.’
“The structure of the book is complex; the style is a triumph of stylistic art, in the old manner of setting style to subject. It should not be dismissed as sociological fashion writing, neither should it be put aside as yesterday’s thing. What Wolfe is talking about is the fundamental way in which American society changed in the mid-1960s. Nobody before had attempted to explain so fully the how and why of the hallucinogens with such art and such painstaking care to detail and social accuracy.
“For all its seeming superabundance of punctuation and participles, every word seems placed with a care and a skill of contrivance which should command respect. The subject is a seemingly esoteric one, many of the details are blood chilling and nauseating, but the book is undeniably a major journalistic contribution to the future analysis of our own and America’s strange period of this century.”
Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970)
The press in New York has tended to favor New Society in every period, and to take it seriously, if only because it provides “news.”
“Now he comes along with Radical Chic and Mau-Mauling the Flak Catchers, and I have to say that Tom Wolfe is still immersed in the longest epiphany in the history of recent literature.
Some people were outraged by Radical Chic when it appeared in slightly shorter form in New York Magazine. Perhaps a few more will be exercised by Mau-Mauling the Flak Catchers, which gives a rather different view of the poverty program hustle than we normally get in the media.
Wolfe’s epiphany. It is, to borrow one of his terms, double track. On the first track is Wolfe himself, as a writer and observer. What happened on the night he wrote The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby was not interpretive reporting.
That night, Wolfe became an impressionistic reporter.
On the second track he found something else: the secret of social history, which is that within the sum of human activity—an event called culture—there are hundreds of subcultures and ways of life. Communicating them was not merely an act of detached social reporting; one has to be immersed in them in order to evoke them.
There is nothing particularly novel in this. Other observers from Petronius to Pepys, from Addison and Steele to Mark Twain, had done it before. Tom Wolfe is doing it now. And doing it superbly.
That this is so is perhaps most effectively shown by the response which Radical Chic received when it was first published. Wolfe was called inaccurate, reactionary, biased. He was indicted on every literary misdemeanor.
Quick we see that it is not simply the tape recorder, camera eye style of a Lillian Ross. In both Radical Chic and Mau-Mauling the Flak Catchers, beneath the absurdity, the hilarious scenes, there is the counterpoint of the human situation. And beyond that is an understanding of the history, or that portion of it, which makes all of this intelligible.
“If Wolfe uses caricature and the devastating perspective of deadpan reporting, he is also capable of distinguishing between style—the affectation of men and women—and their true feeling. He has sympathy for the discomfiture of a Panther leader truing to play out his role in a kind of Kabuki play, in which the small grey man who is trying to guide the evening into profitable fund-raising keeps interjecting.
Those who say that Wolfe tells only part of the history of our ties are closer to the point. But, it is neither irrelevant nor distorting. It fills our social history in a way that totem reporting never could.”
–Robert Kirsch, The Los Angeles Times, December 18, 1970
The Right Stuff (1979)
It was as if the press in America, for all its vaunted independence, were a great colonial animal, an animal made up of countless clustered organisms responding to a central nervous system
“Until now, Tom Wolfe’s biggest writing problem has been to find the proper marriage between his subjects and his witty, hyperbolic, shotgun style. When Wolfe was good—as in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965) and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)—he was very, very good. But when he was bad, he was. . .well, accused of attacking ‘tinsel with an axe’ or of using ‘a two-ton wrecking ball to swat a vestigial winged fly.’ Still, Wolfe always took risks, he was never boring, and if at times he seemed almost to parody himself, that was part of the danger inherent in his style.
Occasionally, however, Subject-Style-Risk fell together just right. When that happened in the 45-line sentence about an attack jet being catapult-launched from an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam in ‘Jousting With Sam & Charlie,’ the result was one of the best bits of reportage to come out of the war. There was something magical about that piece. Now Tom Wolfe has written a book about Project Mercury, America’s first manned space program, and about the test pilots from whom the Mercury seven, the original seven astronauts, were chosen. It is Tom Wolfe at his very best, better in fact than he’s been before. It is technically accurate, learned, cheeky, risky, touching, tough, compassionate, nostalgic, worshipful, jingoistic—it is superb.
“Where Wolfe’s book excels is in his understanding of the astronauts’ inner drive. They were painfully aware of the attitude held by their peers in the test-pilot pyramid: A monkey’s going to make the first flight. (Incidentally, Wolfe’s depiction of the monkeys’ understandable outrage at their trainers is marvelously funny.) The conflict between the scientist/engineers and the astronaut/guinea pigs arose from the seven Mercury astronauts’ determination to retain their self-esteem–an esteem not shared by scientists and engineers attending a National Research Council conference on ‘The Training of Astronauts’ at Woods Hole, Mass., who would speak of the ‘fully automated’ Mercury capsule in which ‘the astronaut has been added to the system as a redundant component.’
“In Wolfe’s previous books his posture was that of the skeptical outsider, the suave, somewhat distant and critical observer, content to move among his subjects with a slightly mocking smile. In The Right Stuff this pose has all but disappeared because Wolfe so obviously admires the test pilots and astronauts he encountered. For once he has taken a positive stance. But unlike the airbrushed portraits in the Life magazine articles and in the astronauts’ own self-serving autobiographies, Wolfe’s depiction of these intensely competitive men—who worried more about making a pilot error than that their rockets might explode, and who were more concerned about the respect of their peers than the adulation of the public—makes the Mercury seven more human, while in no way diminishing our admiration for their courage. Furthermore, Wolfe’s voice, his mÈlange of technical jargon, test pilot shop-talk and whiz-bang hyperbole, is the perfect foil for the cool, laconic West Virginia drawl of those True Brothers in the cockpit.
Off and on during the last few years I would hear that Tom Wolfe was having difficulties with this book, that he had finished three others since beginning work on this one. But he had the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness to keep going back. He had the right stuff.”
The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987)
“Now comes Tom Wolfe, aging enfant terrible, with his first novel, (his first novel!), six hundred and fifty-nine pages of raw energy about New York City and various of its inhabitants—a big, bitter, funny, craftily plotted book that grabs you by the lapels and won’t let go. As in much of his other work, such as The Right Stuff, Mr. Wolfe’s strategy is to somehow batter the reader into submission, using an incantatory repetition of certain emblematic phrases, (HIS FIRST NOVEL!), detailed description of people’s clothing, hyperbole, interior monologue whenever he feels like it, and various other New Journalism devices he is apparently too fond of to give up. What is amazing is that he gets away with it.
“There are dozens of minor characters on each track, and Mr. Wolfe does a fine job of keeping them all under control and in clear focus, while the major characters spiral in on each other toward the final explosive courtroom scene. Mr. Wolfe writes in such a way as to make us read him quickly. Very quickly. (Indeed, if one lingers over the pages the sensation is something like hearing a 78 r.p.m. record played at 33 1/3. One perceives the structure, but misses the essence.) Fast as it is – like falling downstairs, sometimes—the pace is superb, and the action, twists of plot, comic setups and jumps from track to track always occur at just the right times.
The plot is simple. Sherman screws up and the dark forces of the city close in on his rich white butt—but the presentation, or the attenuated revelation of the plot, is admirably complex, and allows for the weaving in of much interesting ancillary material. Mr. Wolfe never cheats the reader. He works hard to get every last bit of juice from every scene, every situation.
And yet, when the author has let go of your lapels and the book is over, there is an odd aftertaste, not entirely pleasant. Maybe he doesn’t entirely get away with it … The odd aftertaste may be in part because there aren’t any people in the book who seem to exist independent of the author’s will, no one with enough depth to surpass his or her accent, clothing, class or situation, no one for whom believable change is possible. They are all victims of fashion or other surface forces. The fun of the book, and much of its energy, comes from watching Mr. Wolfe eviscerate one pathetic character after another. And he is good at it, really brilliant sometimes—whether it be a society matron or a Jewish business tycoon making money running charter jets to Mecca for Arabs—but after a while, when it turns out that everyone is pathetic (except for me and thee, of course), the fun can turn sour. Malice is a powerful spice. Too much can ruin the stew, and Mr. Wolfe comes close.
But in the end everyone is going to read the book, and no one is going to ask for any money back. It positively hums with energy.”
A Man in Full (1998)
One of the few freedoms that we have as human beings that cannot be taken away from us is the freedom to assent to what is true and to deny what is false.
“While Tom Wolfe’s first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), gave us a satiric portrait of New York in the giddy go-go years of the 1980s—those heady years when bond salesmen could think of themselves as ‘Masters of the Universe’—his sprawling new novel, A Man in Full, gives us an equally entertaining portrait of Atlanta in the 1990s, an era when greed has begun to give way to debt, capitalistic hubris to premillennial doubts.
It’s clear, almost from the start, that A Man in Full is a big if qualified leap forward for Wolfe as a novelist. The cartoonish cast of Bonfire—a collection of physical and sartorial tics animated by heaps of authorial malice—has been replaced by characters who bear more of a resemblance to real, sympathetic human beings, and Wolfe’s novelistic canvas has expanded persuasively to include not merely the powerful and rich but also the poor and middle-class.
Unfortunately for the reader, Wolfe’s nimble, often enthralling orchestration of several rollicking story lines—cross-cut cinematically to build tension—comes to a screeching halt in the last few chapters of this novel as the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, of all people, is introduced as a crude deus ex machina cum self-help guru to provide this thick, Dickensian novel with an abrupt, unsatisfying ending.
“Having spent the better part of his career as a reporter who ardently documented his subjects’ lives with dozens of physical and sociological details, Wolfe tends to build up his characters from the outside in. The reverse of a Method actor, he’s a craftsman who believes that people can be defined by externals like money and clothing, that their behavior is largely driven by social context and status (or lack of it).
“But if these [side] characters are thorough stereotypes, Mr. Wolfe’s main men (Charlie Croker, Conrad Hensley and Raymond Peepgass) are more three-dimensional, more fully fashioned human beings. Writing from their point of view, Mr. Wolfe endows them with frustrations, fears and conflicts that turn them into recognizable individuals while at the same time using their picaresque adventures to try to create the sort of big work of social realism, based on research and reporting, that he has long advocated as a means (in his view, the means) of capturing the Zeitgeist of ‘this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping baroque country of ours’ as it slouches towards the millennium.
Certainly A Man in Full aspires to giving the reader an inside look at how deals are struck in big city politics, how real estate empires can be built on debt, how alpha males struggle to achieve dominance on the football field, in business and in high society. And Mr. Wolfe does give us some dazzling, funny, wrenching set pieces, all rendered in his exclamatory, adrenaline-laced prose, that take us from a plantation deep in the heart of Georgia to a prison in Alameda County in California, from a glittering art opening in Atlanta to a numbing night shift in a warehouse stocked with frozen food.
In his controversial 1989 Harper’s manifesto for ‘the new social novel,’ Mr. Wolfe dismissed the notion that American life was too “chaotic, fragmented, random, discontinuous” to be captured—roped, tied down and branded—by contemporary fiction writers, and the strongest sections of A Man in Full do in fact leave us with a sense of what it’s like to live in the ‘billion-footed’ world of today.
The book’s hokey, stage-managed ending, however, suggests that Mr. Wolfe sees the world as such an absurd place—such a chaotic, fragmented, random, discontinuous place—that he could cavalierly (or desperately) tack on a ending that has virtually nothing to do with what has gone before, a conclusion that subjects his characters to fates that seem preposterous even in the ‘age of anomalies’ so energetically conjured up in this bold but flawed new novel.”