Tom Wolfe Essay - Critical Essays

Tom Wolfe American Literature Analysis

Wolfe is the ultimate decadent stylist of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. He invented his psychedelic style as if by accident, as he explained in the introduction of The Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. As a reporter, he had covered the Hot Rod and Custom Car Show in New York for the Herald Tribune in a conventional newspaper story, yet he sensed that his coverage had somehow missed the spirit of the event.

Customizing cars as a folk art form, he believed, was culturally important, yet conventional journalism could not describe it adequately. He agreed to do a longer piece for Esquire, and his editor sent him to California. Up against a deadline, Wolfe concluded that he could not write the piece but told Esquire he would pass on his notes to Bryon Dobell, the managing editor, so that other writers could shape them into a story. Dobell simply printed Wolfe’s forty-nine pages of notes under the title “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” and Wolfe’s career as a stylist and chronicler of popular culture—and of what Wolfe himself called “Pop Society”—was born.

His natural exuberance became the lynchpin of his flamboyant style, which could be used for either satire or praise. In The Right Stuff, for example, Wolfe indulges in satire when he writes about President Lyndon Johnson and the foibles of the astronauts and the space program, but many of his most energetic and remarkable passages are obviously meant to celebrate the achievements of the program and to praise the raw courage and determination of America’s pioneers in space. The book, then, becomes a celebration of patriotism, individuality, and heroism.

The genius of this book is that it manages to humanize the technological achievements of contemporary American science while also fortifying the myth of American inventiveness and ingenuity through heroic examples of individual courage. The astronauts are made vividly distinct—Wolfe describes them as though they were characters in a novel, a grand national epic of daring discovery. The Right Stuff is history embellished with psychology, history wedded to journalism and creative writing, history made subjective and personal. It is history brought to life.

In The Right Stuff, Wolfe did for history what he had earlier done for journalism. The conventional historian, like the conventional journalist, traditionally works under the constraints of objectivity. Wolfe’s contribution was that he brought to the task of writing history and journalism a unique voice and point of view. He invaded the minds of his subjects as if he were portraying fictional characters, applying New Journalism techniques to history.

In The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, for example, Wolfe is especially effective when he writes about the South. One of the best profiles in this collection concerns the “legend” of North Carolina stock-car racer Junior Johnson, whom Wolfe characterizes as “The Last American Hero,” much admired for his skill, courage, and recklessness, virtues similar to those of test pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. This local hero is a risk taker who developed his driving skills while delivering moonshine and outrunning federal agents on the back roads of his native state. Heroes are rarely found in the writings of Tom Wolfe; Johnson and Yeager are among those few.

Wolfe is a master of hyperbole, which he uses more often to denigrate than to praise, as when he describes Baby Jane Holzer as “the most incredible socialite in history.” Wolfe understands vanity and folly, ego and excess, image-making and fame, money and power, and the quest for status, which is a dominant motif in his writing.

Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, which he describes as being “realistic” fiction, can and should be read as a sociological satire on status—how it is achieved and how it can be lost. It is also a treatise on power and politics, exposing the decadent and corrupt nature of New York City. Clearly, Wolfe knows his territory, having lived there and having earned his own literary status in the nation’s most brutally competitive city.

Curiously, the nightmare vision of New York exactly fits the stereotype of provincial America’s most negative impression of New York as a corrupt dystopia, an alien territory populated by greedy, egocentric, materialistic monsters. Wolfe’s antihero, Sherman McCoy, is too seriously flawed by arrogance, vanity, licentiousness, and craven fear to have much tragic dimension, though he does seem capable of learning from his misfortune at the end. In general, one looks in vain for admirable characters, finding only emblems and caricatures. Wolfe may consider his style “realistic,” but it often appears rather to be symbolic, allegorical, and savagely satiric. In A Man in Full, he turns his attention to the foibles of Atlanta, emblem of the New South.

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

First published: 1965

Type of work: Essays

This collection of essays on cultural trends and figures is shaped by New Journalism to resemble short stories.

This pioneering anthology established a model for the personal, subjective style of New Journalism. The first essay attempts to capture the spirit of the city of Las Vegas and is typical of Wolfe’s self-conscious satirical method. Fascinated by the vulgar spectacle of Las Vegas, Wolfe was able to fashion a verbal style to suit the substance, a style that is itself excessive and prolix, repeating key words and motifs. The essay herniates itself in the first paragraph, for example, where the word “hernia” is repeated fifty-seven times, catching the babble of a casino zombie at the craps table. Wolfe piles words on top of one another to create a verbal cascade; he fractures syntax for effect; he overpunctuates, overloading his sentences, as in the title of his lead essay, “Las Vegas (what?) Las Vegas (can’t hear you! too noisy) Las Vegas!!!”

At the end of the book, Wolfe describes “The Big League Complex” of New Yorkers with the wonderment of an outsider. Years later, in The Bonfire of the Vanities, he reworks this theme from the vantage point of an insider who has achieved status and tasted its hollowness. Wolfe later coined the phrase “The Me Decade” to describe the 1970’s, after having helped to create the style of that decade. Each tirade of excess, every verbal spasm of his decadent and psychedelic style, is designed to capture the reader’s attention with the unstated but insistent plea: Look at me!

Throughout the book, Wolfe is fascinated by cultural eccentricity. In “Clean Fun at Riverhead,” he profiles Lawrence Mendelsohn, who created and then promoted the notion of the demolition derby as a new “sport.” Other selections reveal a fixation on automobiles and car culture. The title essay concerns customized cars and the celebrities of this subculture, such as Hollywood customizer George Barns, who paints his “creations” with “Kandy Kolors.” One of the book’s longest and most effective pieces, “The Last American Hero,” profiles stock-car racing celebrity Junior Johnson, explaining the man, his sport, and its cultural context in such a way as to convince the reader that Johnson may be convincingly heroic.

Junior Johnson is a regional celebrity. Elsewhere in the book, Wolfe profiles national celebrities: motion-picture star Cary Grant, in “Loverboy of the Bourgeoisie,” for example, in which Wolfe contends that Grant is “an exciting bourgeois” rather than “an aristocratic motion picture figure,” and heavyweight champion Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), in “The Marvelous Mouth,” famous for making vulgar and extravagant claims about other contenders such as Sonny Liston.

Most of the book concerns celebrities and status. Many of the celebrities have faded into obscurity, such as celebrity model Baby Jane Holzer, “The Girl of the Year,” once the darling of New York café society, now hardly a pop-cultural footnote. Perhaps more enduring is celebrity disc jockey Murray the K, “The Fifth Beatle,” the “king of the Hysterical Disc Jockeys,” famous for inventing a much-imitated goofy announcing style, who managed to befriend the Beatles during their first American tour and gained a measure of immortality by fortunate association.

Wolfe is fascinated by the offbeat. In “Purveyor of the Public Life,” he profiles Robert Harrison, the publisher of “the most scandalous scandal magazine in the history of the world,” Confidential (1952-1958), and a specialist in what Wolfe calls the “aesthetique du schlock.” Wolfe cheerfully explores culture, high and low. On one hand, he treats rock-and-roll magnate Phil Spector (“The First Tycoon of Teen”); on the other, he takes on Huntington Hartford and his Gallery of Modern Art (“The Luther of Columbus Circle”) and the Museum of Modern Art (“The New Art Gallery Society”).

Emblems of status abound: an executive’s brown Chesterfield and his “Madison Avenue crash helmet” (in “Putting Daddy On”), fashionable interior decorators (“The Woman Who Has Everything”), tailor-made suits (“The Secret Vice”), and exclusive neighborhoods (“The Big League Complex”). Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wolfe is fascinated by the rich and powerful. Only rarely does he pay attention to the underclass, the have-nots, as he does in “The Voices of Village Square.” Those voices come from the Women’s House of Detention at 10 Greenwich Avenue. This is the author’s choice, and it is apparently even his fixation.

The Right Stuff

First published: 1979

Type of work: Nonfiction

The book is an example of New Journalism, written like a novel in which the first astronauts and their wives are the principal characters.

Tom Wolfe begins The Right Stuff by introducing Pete Conrad, who did not become an astronaut until the second round of selections, and Chuck Yeager, who was never an astronaut. Still, both men have always possessed the “right stuff,” especially Yeager, “the most righteous of all the possessors.” From the third chapter onward, the worth of every astronaut is implicitly measured against that of Yeager, the acknowledged king of the fighter pilots turned test pilots. Wolfe defines the right stuff as the Fighter Jock’s combination of courage, competence, insouciance, and unshakeable self-confidence. Wolfe compares the astronauts’ right stuff to the defining quality of the Elect. In Calvinistic theology, the Elect are those fortunate souls who are predestined for salvation from the...

(The entire section is 4458 words.)