Monday, March 2, 2015

Tom Wolfe At 84

His earlier works seem written as much for entertainment as for traditional reportorial honesty and often involve not only the writer's observation but also his participation. And there are those long daydream passages of vivid description that end with a quick snap back to reality. As he worked more and more in fiction his style retained muted elements of the "wildness" that made his early "journalism" amazingly popular into the 1990's.  Today the first wave of Gonzos - a term coined around 1970 by Hunter S. Thompson to describe a wing of New Journalism advocates - is all but gone, save for Tom Wolfe who turns 84 today. Wolfe remains it's most famous surviving member in the U.S. It's been a long way from The Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby to tackling the Great American Novel for Wolfe. He's always been quite happy interpreting the American experience as an outsider looking into other worlds and he's certainly surpassed Thompson and others in his school with a matured Gonzo style.

Wolfe's novel latest, Back to Blood [2012], was only marginally successful and may lead us to speculate on what the future holds for a successful writer whose life has entered the twilight years. Most of us would like to think there is more compelling reading to come from such a wise observer. Let's hope so, but better we should leave prediction to heaven and immerse ourselves in the great wealth of observation of the American experience Tom Wolfe assembled for us.

These days Wolfe's novels still make news but I believe we should always remember his entertaining journalism, especially the work that chronicled our cultural history in the critical years from early 1960's to the mid-1970's. In those years he wrote the following titles:

The Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965)
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)
The Pump House Gang (1968)
Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970)
The New Journalism (1974) edited with E.W. Johnson
The Painted Word (1975)
Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine (1976)

He capped the 1970's with, The Right Stuff, his fascinating look at the nation's first astronauts, the Mercury Seven, and program that put most of them into space. Although he had already achieved fame as a writer the publication of The Right Stuff  and the film by the same name that followed in 1983 ensured his place in American literature. 

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