Sunday, May 23, 2010

Friday Fiction: Tom Wolfe

--by Hanje Richards

Tom Wolfe is considered one of the founders of the New Journalism Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. New Journalism was a style of writing in which some journalists and essayists experimented with a variety of literary techniques, mixing them with the traditional ideal of dispassionate, even-handed reporting.
In 1964, Wolfe wrote an article called: "There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby." The article was widely discussed – loved loved by some, hated by others. From there, Wolfe went on to publish his first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a collection of his writings from the Herald-Tribune, Esquire and elsewhere.

One of the most striking examples of New Journalism is Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The book, a narrative account of the adventures of the Merry Pranksters, a famous sixties counter-culture group, was highly experimental in its use of onomatopoeia, free association, and eccentric use of punctuation – such as multiple exclamation marks and italics – to convey the manic ideas and personalities of Ken Kesey and his followers.

Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, appeared in 1987. The book was a commercial and critical success, spending weeks on bestseller lists and earning praise from much of the literary establishment on which Wolfe had long heaped scorn.

In 1973, I saw Tom Wolfe, walking down the street in Manhattan. He was wearing his trademark white suit. I laughed out loud when I saw him, partly delighted and partly appalled. My companion poked me in the ribs and said, “Don’t you know who that is?” I had read Wolfe’s New Journalism in high school, but I was not aware of his personal style.

Wolfe adopted the white suit as a trademark in 1962. He bought his first white suit planning to wear it in the summer in the style of Southern gentlemen. The suit he purchased, however, was too heavy in the summer for his tastes and so he wore it in winter instead. He found wearing the suit in the winter created a sensation and adopted it as his trademark. Wolfe has maintained the uniform ever since, sometimes worn with a matching white tie, white homburg hat, and two-tone shoes.

Bonfire Of The Vanities - Against a New York landscape teeming with detail and the kind of dead-on observation that is Tom Wolfe's trademark, we meet Sherman McCoy, a young investment banker who's got it all: the right high-paying, high-powered job on Wall Street, the right connections, the right co-op, the right wife and child, the right mistress.
Life is good for Sherman McCoy... until he's involved in a freak accident in the Bronx. Suddenly, prosecutors, politicians, the press, police, clergy, and assorted hustlers high and low are closing in on him, licking their chops. Here is a big, rich, panoramic story of a city where everybody is burning with the itch to Grab It Now.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Non-fiction) - Tom Wolfe's much-discussed kaleidoscopic non-fiction novel chronicles the tale of novelist Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters. In the 1960s, Kesey led a group of psychedelic sympathizers around the country in a painted bus, presiding over LSD-induced "acid tests" all along the way. Long considered one of the greatest books about the history of the hippies, Wolfe's ability to research like a reporter and simultaneously evoke the hallucinogenic indulgence of the era ensures that this book, written in 1967, will live long in the counter-culture canon of American literature.

I Am Charlotte Simmons - Our story unfolds at Dupont University, where beautiful, brilliant Charlotte Simmons, a sheltered freshman from North Carolina soon learns, to her mounting dismay, that for the upper-crust coeds of Dupont, sex, cool, and kegs trump academic achievement every time.

As Charlotte encounters the paragons of Dupont's privileged elite – her roommate, Beverly; Jojo Johanssen, the only white starting player on Dupont's basketball team; the Young Turk of Saint Ray fraternity, Hoyt Thorpe, and Adam Geller, one of the Millennial Mutants who run the university's "independent" newspaper – she is seduced by the heady glamour of acceptance, betraying both her values and upbringing before she grasps the power of being different – and the exotic allure of her own innocence.

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Non-fiction) - This is Tom Wolfe's first collected book of essays, published in 1965. The book is named for one of the stories in the collection that was originally published in Esquire in 1963. Wolfe's essay for Esquire and this, his first book, are frequently heralded as early examples of New Journalism. The 22 essays in the book share no particular unifying theme other than Wolfe's experimental techniques in non-fiction writing. Subjects that crop up in this work, and continue throughout Wolfe's career, include his interests in status, culture, form and style.

A Man In Full - The setting is Atlanta, Georgia – a racially mixed, late-century boomtown full of fresh wealth and wily politicians. The protagonist is Charles Croker, once a college football star, now a late-middle-aged Atlanta conglomerate king whose outsize ego has at last hit up against reality. Charlie has a 29,000-acre quail-shooting plantation, a young and demanding second wife, and a half-empty office complex with a staggering load of debt.

Meanwhile, Conrad Hensley, idealistic young father of two, is laid off from his job at the Croker Global Foods warehouse near Oakland and finds himself spiraling into the lower depths of the American legal system.

And back in Atlanta, when star Georgia Tech running back Fareek “the Canon” Fanon, a homegrown product of the city’s slums, is accused of date-raping the daughter of a pillar of the white establishment, upscale black lawyer Roger White II is asked to represent Fanon and help keep the city’s delicate racial balance from blowing sky-high.

The Right Stuff - The men had it. Yeager. Conrad. Grissom. Glenn. Heroes... the first Americans in space... battling the Russians for control of the heavens... putting their lives on the line. The women had it. While Mr. Wonderful was aloft, it tore your heart out that the Hero's Wife, down on the ground, had to perform with the whole world watching... the TV Press Conference: "What's in your heart? Do you feel with him while he's in orbit?"

The Right Stuff. It's the quality beyond bravery, beyond courage. It's men like Chuck Yeager, the greatest test pilot of all and the fastest man on earth. Pete Conrad, who almost laughed himself out of the running. Gus Grissom, who almost lost it when his capsule sank. John Glenn, the only space traveler whose apple-pie image wasn't a lie.