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Radical chic and the right stuff Featured

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Tom Wolfe Tom Wolfe (AP file photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Even the most devoted of book lovers, the most loving of lexophiles has only so much room in their personal literary pantheon. No matter how deeply your adoration runs, space at the top of the heap is limited. We’ve all just a scant few true favorites.

Tom Wolfe was one of mine. He passed away on May 14 at the age of 88.

Wolfe was the author of nearly 20 books, both fiction and non. He was one of the progenitors of the paradigm-shifting New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s, penning some of the greatest works of nonfiction of the 20th century. He pivoted to fiction a bit later in his career and produced four excellent novels. He was one of the most gifted literary stylists of his – or any – generation.

And he drastically shifted my personal understanding of what writing could be.

I discovered Tom Wolfe in my early 20s, courtesy of the New Journalism gateway drug that is Hunter S. Thompson. It was my consumption of HST’s “Hell’s Angels,” such a weird documentation of Thompson’s aggressive immersion into that world, that led to me holding a copy of “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” in my hands.

I had heard of Wolfe and knew vaguely who he was, but I had never read him - I came to that book with no preconceptions, no real idea of what I was in for. I had read and loved “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but I knew next to nothing about Ken Kesey or his Merry Pranksters. My expectation was that this book would basically be “Hell’s Angels,” only with hippies.

I don’t know that I’ve ever been so simultaneously right and wrong about anything since.

“Acid Test” was that same sort of immersive, deeply reported but also narratively structured reading experience. It was journalism, but also … not? The bringing together of seemingly disparate literary entities felt so remarkable and fresh, even as I was reading some 30 years after initial publication.

But it was also different, because Wolfe was a better writer. He may never have generated the raw energy that HST summoned seemingly at will for decades, but Wolfe as a stylist was head-and-shoulders beyond Thompson (though late-1990s Allen might not have seen it quite that clearly). The evocative use of language, the willingness to experiment with form, telling the truth with the flair of fiction … it was just so damned INTERESTING.

“Acid Test” was first, but it didn’t take me long to devour his other work. From the earlier stuff, “Acid Test” casts a shadow over it all, but “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” always compelled me, while “The Painted Word” is a fascinating work about the crossroads of creativity and cynicism. And even the ones that didn’t resonate as fully with me were all vivid and transportive.

But then I read “The Right Stuff” and was bowled over again. Perhaps it was the shift in subject matter; you couldn’t get much further from the counterculture than the early days of the space program. And yet … that flair for language was still very much present. Wolfe was somehow able to maintain his brilliant mastery of phrasing, his evocative and challenging prose, while marrying it to the story of these complex and courageous heroes. He mythologized and humanized the Mercury Seven simultaneously, striking the balance between elevating them and grounding them.

Bear in mind – this is all happening during the decade-long gap between Wolfe’s first two novels. I read and enjoyed “Bonfire of the Vanities,” but it was “A Man in Full” that really captured and enraptured me. The story of real estate magnate Charlie Croker took hold of me and refused to let go; it’s a testament to Wolfe’s powers that I was so invested in a world with which I had absolutely zero experience. Just spellbinding. His other novels – 2004’s “I Am Charlotte Simmons” and 2012’s “Back to Blood” – didn’t have the same sort of success as his earlier efforts (though I’m of the opinion that “Back to Blood” was perhaps unfairly maligned).

Tom Wolfe displayed a level of descriptive nimbleness and creative abandon unparalleled by any writer of his generation. He helped redefine what nonfiction could be, uniting a voracious appetite for research with a hyperkinetic technicolor prose and making something altogether new. The pushing of boundaries is what fuels artistic innovation; Wolfe unfailingly pushed. His work influenced generations of writers over the course of a half-century-plus, breaking down the perceived limits of nonfiction.

RIP sir.

“This is the artist, then, life’s hungry man, the glutton of eternity, beauty’s miser, glory’s slave.” - Tom Wolfe

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