One of the best moments of my life was getting my first rejection email from Tom Wolfe. I’d sent a gushing fanmail asking him to write an article for the Spectator. He declined in style. Now, typically, I can’t find the message in my inbox. I just remember Wolfe’s tremendous manners, the crazy trademark panache in his punctuation, and that he signed off saying “Keep ’em flying!” The next year, undeterred, I asked him to do an interview. Again, he declined in style.
It’s pathetic that I get such a kick out of being politely told to get lost by a famous man. But I loved Tom Wolfe, and I was strangely knocked by his death last week, as if I knew him when I didn’t.
I loved Wolfe for his wit, his guts, his appearance: that white suit always worn in a way that somehow told you he knew how silly it was. He was playing at being Tom Wolfe, and it was a class act.
Wolfe, more than anyone, pioneered the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s. The new journalists were a bunch of brave American writers who said to hell with the staid conventions of the New York Times, they were going to tell it as they damn well saw it.
Wolfe was the master. At his best, and in his best novels, especially in Bonfire of the Vanities and (the very underrated) I am Charlotte Simmons, he electrifies your imagination. He’s brilliant and never afraid of being funny. Wolfe’s spelling flourishes make me laugh out loud. Take the original title of his essay on car culture in California: “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm).”
The style feels wild, but Wolfe was in fact highly disciplined in his approach. He stuck to his four devices for writing – scene-by-scene construction, full dialogue, that “in-their-mind” third person voice, and acute observation of each person or character’s status-signalling – and turned them into art.
Most of all I love Wolfe because he so irritates the bores. The book-reviewer crowd, for instance, who like to ruin reading for everyone apart from themselves, couldn’t bear him.
Partly this was because Wolfe’s politics were conservative and conservatives aren’t meant to be clever; more it was because he made literature fun and bores don’t like fun. In his later years, especially, reviewers took to dismissing his stylistic eccentricities as superficial. They couldn’t see that what he was doing was laughing at how superficial humanity is.
As Wolfe got older, his books were less successful. Know-alls dismissed his novels as “airport fiction”. His last book, The Kingdom of Speech, was something of a rant against Noam Chomsky and postmodern analyses of language. It’s not his best work: he wasn’t in great health when he wrote it.
But oh how the literati relished turning their noses. Oliver Kamm, for instance, blew his snot all over it in the Times. Wolfe, he said, hadn’t understood academic linguistics at all and therefore his contribution was worthless: “The Kingdom of Speech is published by Jonathan Cape but might as well have been issued by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose tracts at least have the merit of being funnier.”
The online lit mob gleefully clicked that one around: ho ho ho, that’ll teach him. I couldn’t help thinking of the rapper Eminem’s line on Dr Dre’s comeback 2001 album: “You better show some respect whenever the doc’s brought up.” Who are you, Oliver Kamm, to be so rude about a great like Wolfe?
To cheer myself, I pick up Radical Chic, Wolfe’s wonderful essay about infiltrating Leonard Bernstein’s ridiculous party for Black Panthers on New York’s Upper East Side. My favourite bit is worth quoting in full:
Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. These are nice. Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts. Very tasty. Very subtle. It’s the way the dry sackiness of the nuts tiptoes up against the dour savor of the cheese that is so nice, so subtle. Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d’oeuvre trail? Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels wrapped in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at this very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons … The butler will bring them their drinks … Deny it if you wish to, but such are the pensées métaphysiques that rush through one’s head on these Radical Chic evenings just now in New York. For example, does that huge Black Panther there in the hallway, the one shaking hands with Felicia Bernstein herself, the one with the black leather coat and the dark glasses and the absolutely unbelievable Afro, Fuzzy Wuzzy-scale in fact – is he, a Black Panther, going on to pick up a Roquefort cheese morsel rolled in crushed nuts from off the tray, from a maid in uniform, and just pop it down the gullet without so much as missing a beat of Felicia’s perfect Mary Astor voice …
I once mentioned that passage at dinner with another terrific American writer, Michael Lewis (name droooooooop!) and he said excitedly: “Yes! Because you’re just there!” That’s exactly it. You are.
Like all good journalism, Radical Chic stung the pompous. Wolfe’s mockery of the Bernsteins really angered the followers of elite American liberalism, who are religious about their politics, and they never really forgave him. As Wolfe put it, “I was the man who laughed in church.”
God bless him. I hope he’s in heaven, laughing with angels still dressed in white. Keep ’em flying, Tom!
Freddy Gray is deputy editor of the Spectator
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