Tom Wolfe American Literature Analysis

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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...

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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 beginning of time. If one is not among the Elect, then one cannot get to be. If one does not already possess the right stuff, then one cannot get it.

The incidents in The Right Stuff are factual, but the author gives them a novelistic treatment. He does not, like some of his fellow New Journalists, fabricate conversations to which he was not privy, but he does chronicle the thought processes of the astronauts and their wives at length. He devotes detailed chapters to the suborbital flights of Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, to the increasingly sophisticated orbital flights of John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper. As usual, Wolfe is fascinated by the minutiae of his subject matter. He describes every feature of the space capsule, from the fans and the gyros to the inverters, and every segment of each flight. However, The Right Stuff is really more the story of who the astronauts were than of what they did.

The press has decided at the outset that the astronauts are America’s finest. So fawning is its coverage of them that Wolfe refers to the press as the “consummate hypocritical Victorian gent.” Reporters ignore the differing personalities among the first seven astronauts chosen for the program. They also ignore the astronauts’ penchant for bouts of drinking, late-night car racing, and womanizing. The astronaut who best fits the all-American ideal is Glenn. He is a master at playing the press. No one will be surprised when he enters politics. He immediately becomes the group’s star and, understandably, is not universally admired by his six colleagues. He is given the ironic title Galactic Single-Combat General. Although he is only the third American to fly in space, and his successors flew far more orbits than he did, he remains the iconic astronaut. For example, Colonel Glenn Road is an important artery in Little Rock, Arkansas, to which John Glenn has no attachment whatever, either biographical or geographical.

Wolfe has no interest in reportorial objectivity. He grossly exaggerates for comic effect. An example is the astronauts’ reception in Houston, Texas. He uses the heat and Texas heartiness to create what is clearly a caricature, albeit an amusing one. With the publication of The Right Stuff, Hollywood discovered Wolfe, and the book was adapted as a highly successful motion picture.

The Bonfire of the Vanities

First published: 1987

Type of work: Novel

A Wall Street high roller is involved in a hit-and-run accident and is eventually brought to justice.

The Bonfire of the Vanities provides an interesting contrast to Wolfe’s earlier work. It is a huge, sprawling novel that runs to more than 650 pages, yet it reveals the same fascination with wealth, power, and status that dominated The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, his first book. In the novel, which was a long time in the making, Wolfe skillfully introduces a large and diverse cast of characters representing many levels of New York society while setting multiple, intersecting plots in motion. It begins as a meticulously constructed work. It is entertaining as satire and fascinating because of the way it weaves multiple satiric sketches into a unified but cumbersome plot that gains momentum like a runaway train. When it finally grinds to a halt, it seems to have run out of steam, almost dying of exhaustion.

The plot is so densely textured that it resists easy summary. The main plot follows the fortunes of Sherman McCoy, a thirty-eight-year-old, Yale-educated bond dealer on Wall Street who considers himself a “Master of the Universe.” He lives in the “right” neighborhood, in a tenth-floor duplex on Park Avenue. He has a perfect wife and child, as well as a Mercedes and a mistress. The latter two possessions serve to bring about his ultimate downfall and disgrace.

Maria, his mistress, is married to a very wealthy husband. She is a well-traveled, ill-bred, faithless cracker bimbo. Maria spends a week in Italy, and Sherman agrees to meet her return flight at Kennedy Airport. Driving back to Manhattan, Sherman makes a wrong turn and ends up in the South Bronx. He gets lost in the land of the have-nots, and he and Maria end up in a blocked cul-de-sac. Getting out of his Mercedes to remove an obstacle, he notices two approaching black youths, one of whom offers help. Believing they are “setting him up,” Sherman scuffles with them. In a state of panic, he then runs for the car to effect a getaway. Maria, who is now driving, is also in a state of panic. She crashes the car into the boys, who have retaliated to Sherman’s attack. One of them, Henry Lamb, suffers a concussion and lapses into a coma. The muckraking press describes Lamb as an “honor student” and screams for racial justice.

Eventually Sherman will find himself charged with hit-and-run manslaughter, though, realistically, the wheels of justice turn slowly. At first, all that is known is that the boy was hit by a Mercedes registered in New York. The Reverend Reginald Bacon, an opportunist who chairs the “Harlem-based All Peoples’s Solidarity” movement, makes the most of the incident’s political implications.

The exploitive press, represented by a sleazy alcoholic British tabloid hack named Peter Fallow, thrives on the issue. Abe Weiss, a Jewish district attorney who is up for reelection, and his deputy, Lawrence Kramer, have a political stake in bringing Sherman to justice. Wolfe follows these and other characters through the protracted investigation, while Sherman sweats. It was his Mercedes, and he knows that Maria cannot be trusted to support him or even tell the truth about what happened. In the end, Sherman loses everything—his wife and child, his job, his Park Avenue apartment, his money, his power, and his status.

The novel ends in an epilogue in the form of a feature in The New York Times thirteen months after the accident; it informs the reader that Henry Lamb died and Sherman was arraigned for manslaughter. Bronx District Attorney Richard A. Weiss gets reelected as a result of his “tenacious prosecution.” Albert Vogel, a radical-chic lawyer representing the victim, wins a $12 million settlement against Sherman. The sleazy Peter Fallow wins a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the affair. In short, all the corrupt characters come out winners.

Sherman, who is technically innocent, gains dignity and human dimension through his tribulations, once his career and his ego have been demolished; the only other potentially decent character, Thomas Killian, Sherman’s defense attorney, also finds himself the target of litigation and on the skids financially. Lisa Grunwald, profiling Wolfe for Esquire, argued that the writer is more significant as a storyteller than as a social critic, but this is an arguable conclusion if one measures the achievement of The Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe sets a complicated plot in motion and sustains a heavily textured narrative for hundreds of pages, but the same skill and brilliance that is amply in evidence at the beginning is not sustained at the conclusion, which seems rushed, forced, and curiously flat. It is a well-designed first novel, but a truly outstanding storyteller might have provided a more effective conclusion.

Supremely self-confident, Wolfe sees himself as a writer of realist fiction and has dared to compare himself with novelists Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, and Charles Dickens. As a latter-day naturalist, he may be able to justify this claim to an extent, but the comparison with Dickens is questionable. Dickens could be a master of sentiment, but Wolfe’s flair for satire does not allow for sentiment in this epic tale of greed, vanity, and folly in contemporary New York. Dickens could draw characters that touched the hearts of his readers, but it is difficult to find characters in Wolfe’s novel who are sympathetic or even likable; his characters are consistently deeply flawed.

Rather than Dickens, Wolfe is closer in tone and spirit to Henry Fielding, whom he might begin to rival as a satirist. Even Fielding, however, was able to create the formidable Parson Adams—flawed, perhaps, by vanity, but essentially an honorable and honest man—in the novel Joseph Andrews (1742). There is no character of his dimension of humanity in The Bonfire of the Vanities.

The novel quickly became a best seller and was hugely successful. It was not without its critics, however. Reviewing Wolfe’s novel for The Nation, John Leonard wrote that “only Tom Wolfe could descend into the sewers of our criminal justice system and find for his hero a white victim in a city where Bernie Goetz gets six months [for shooting a black youth he thought was threatening him in the New York subway]. . . . Only Wolfe could want to be our Balzac and yet not notice the real-estate hucksters and the homeless.” Nevertheless, whatever its limitations, The Bonfire of the Vanities is an intricately plotted work of social observation, and as Wolfe’s first foray into full-length fiction, it is an impressive achievement.

A Man in Full

First published: 1998

Type of work: Novel

The author examines New South society under a piercing light. The novel is centered in Atlanta, Georgia, but the plot expands, in typical Wolfe fashion, to span the country.

A Man in Full is another massive Wolfe effort, 742 pages in length, which reveals his indebtedness to the nineteenth century French naturalists and Victorian realists. There are two major plot lines, several significant subplots, and literally hundreds of characters. The dual protagonists are Charles “Charlie” Croker, a once powerful businessman whose real estate empire is rapidly crumbling around him, and Conrad Hensley, young, married, father of two, whose straits are even more desperate than Charlie’s. Charlie has overbuilt a large office complex and has gone deeply into debt in the process. As a result, one of Charlie’s allied businesses, Croker Global Foods, near Oakland, California, must lay off workers. Conrad Hensley is one of these employees. The two protagonists’ fortunes spiral downward simultaneously.

The construction of the narrative is reminiscent of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1878), wherein the stories of Anna and Levin proceed separately and do not really converge until almost page 700 of an 800-page novel. Similarly, for most of A Man in Full, Charlie is fighting for his fortune and the life that he has known in the Southeast, while Conrad suffers on the West Coast. Both stories are rich in incident and reflect Wolfe’s attitude toward fiction—why, with the wealth of material America affords (race relations, sexual mores, regional and class distinctions, the cult of celebrity, fortunes won and lost, politics, sports, show business, and more) would any novelist limit himself or herself to a narrow, inward-looking stylistic approach?

Charlie has a family which, if not dysfunctional, at least complicates his life. He has an ex-wife, Martha, who got a generous divorce settlement; a trophy wife, Serena, thirty-two years younger than he; an eleven-month-old daughter; and three children from his first marriage, two of whom are older than his wife.

Wolfe reintroduces the theme of racial conflict with which he has dealt since the publication of Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. Fareek “the Cannon” Fanon, Georgia Tech’s star running back, is accused of raping the daughter of a prominent white Atlantan. As racial tensions are close to bursting into violence, Fanon, an inner-city product, is defended by Roger White II, a successful light-skinned black lawyer, who has been derisively labeled “Roger Too White.” As Roger frets over his suspension between the two races, Wolfe is one of the few white writers daring to deal with the question of what makes a person an “Authentic Black.”

While Charlie is dying, economically and socially, the death of a thousand cuts in Atlanta, Conrad, through a series of misadventures and downright injustices, is jailed in Alameda County, California. By mistake, he is sent as reading material The Stoics, and he soon becomes a disciple of the philosopher Epictetus. An earthquake strikes, the correctional facility collapses, and Conrad escapes. Mai, a member of an underground railroad for illegal Asian aliens, sends him to Atlanta, where it is believed that he will be safe. Conrad meets Charlie, becomes his “man,” and sticks with him after all others have left. Conrad converts Charlie, who becomes a highly successful evangelist of Stoicism throughout Georgia, Florida, and Alabama.

The title of the novel is nicely ambiguous. It may simply mean that each of the heroes has been studied from every possible angle, or it may mean that it is only when Charlie and Conrad are united that the reader sees “a man in full.”

I Am Charlotte Simmons

First published: 2004

Type of work: Novel

A brilliant, innocent young woman from the rural South experiences a painful voyage toward self-discovery during her first year at college.

The eponymous heroine of I Am Charlotte Simmons is the most brilliant student ever graduated from Alleghany High School in tiny Sparta, located high in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Although she is beautiful of face and form, her academic seriousness has always distanced her from her classmates. She wins a scholarship to Dupont University in Chester, Pennsylvania, “on the other side of the Blue Ridge.” Dupont is an elite institution, ranked second in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Her mother tells her that, if faced with a temptation she knows is wrong, she need only remind herself, “I’m Charlotte Simmons.” The novel explores whether she is the Charlotte Simmons of the opening chapters and, if not, what Charlotte Simmons has she become?

Charlotte has dreamed of living the life of the mind at Dupont, but she finds it very different from what she expected. Charlotte is one of the few freshmen who attended a public high school. Even so, the men in her coed bathroom are purposely disgusting. These sons and daughters of privilege are habitually foul-mouthed, drunk, and sexually promiscuous. Beverly Amory, Charlotte’s anorexic roommate from Sherborn, Massachusetts, is patronizing and sarcastic in her manner, sluttish in her behavior. Disguised by the university’s imposing gothic exterior are gloomy corridors and “worn and exhausted” rooms. Dupont’s colors are mauve and yellow. Wolfe cleverly uses the royal connotations of purple to comment ironically on the degenerate lives being led by America’s best and brightest.

On campus, Charlotte is pursued by three very different Dupont men. Joseph J. (Jojo) Johanssen is a six-foot, ten-inch, 250-pound power forward on the Dupont Charlies basketball team. Charlotte urges Jojo to become a real student, as opposed to just a student-athlete, and he responds as well as he can. Adam Gellin (originally Gellininsky) is hired by the Athletic Department to be Jojo’s tutor; he also delivers pizzas and writes for the campus newspaper, The Daily Wave. He is intellectually pretentious, but Charlotte is drawn to him and his little clique of social misfits because they seem more interested in ideas than in sports, keg parties, and “hooking up.” Hoyt Thorpe is the acknowledged leader of the Saint Ray fraternity boys. He is a handsome, charming sexual predator. He seduces Charlotte. It is her first, and a very unpleasant, sexual experience. She falls into a deep depression, which nearly dooms her Dupont career.

The plot weaves three narrative lines together. First, there are Charlotte’s travails in her first semester at Dupont. Second, as Hoyt and his fraternity brother Vance Phipps are walking through the Grove beneath a full moon, they stumble upon the governor of California—a Dupont alumnus on campus to give an address—having sex with a student. Third, Adam has written a history paper for Jojo (before the latter’s academic conversion). Jojo’s professor, Jerome (Jerry) Quat, an activist and an avowed enemy of the Athletic Department, has taken the first steps toward having Jojo and Adam dismissed from Dupont. The narrative threads converge in the final chapters, and the conflicts are resolved in a manner that was skillfully foreshadowed. Hoyt is bribed with the promise of a good job with an IB (investment banking firm) after graduation, but he is betrayed by a disgruntled fraternity brother, who gives the story to the press. Adam gets the scoop for The Daily Wave. Quat, who hates the Republican governor of California, is so pleased with his exposure that he drops his charges against Adam and Jojo. Hoyt’s job offer is withdrawn. In the final chapter, Charlotte has become the unlikely girlfriend of Jojo Johanssen.

The most memorable features of the novel, however, are the richly detailed character studies and Wolfe’s rather disturbing portrayal of American higher education in the twenty-first century.


Tom Wolfe Long Fiction Analysis