Tom Wolfe and the bonfire of male literary reputations
The late US author’s writing style might seem dated, but at least the obituaries were kind
Fri 18 May 2018
t has been easy, in the last few years, to reread Tom Wolfe and find him horribly dated. After the announcement of his death on Monday, I went back to my copy of The New Journalism for the first time in a decade and found myself tutting in annoyance, or as Wolfe himself might have put it, going tskkkkuh-fnmmm-ught. All those made-ups words and jaunty phrases; the testosterone; the punctuation. Lord, the punctuation. And then I thought of where I was when I first read Wolfe and felt my heart crater.
It’s not an interesting story. I was on a bus in 1994. It was the 280 service between Aylesbury and Oxford and it was one of those occasions when the mind-blowing effect of the book you are reading forever cements what you saw when you looked up from the page. Boiling hot day, empty bus, spriggy hedgerows through the window and oh my word – I remember it so vividly – these mad sentences I couldn’t believe it was actually legal to write.
Time is generally less kind to writing than to music styles, and that vintage of American male journalist hasn’t aged well. Gay Talese recently fell foul of the times; the gonzo brand seems purple and self-indulgent. Only Joan Didionsails above them, like a queen, in spite of increasing numbers of anecdotes surfacing in other people’s memoirs about how difficult she is to sit next to at dinner.
Wolfe was different: grander, more outrageous, less inclined to censor himself than the others. He was that strange combination of above-it-all with his white suit and cane, and elbow-deep in the mud and the hustle. I had wondered if the obituaries would be unkind, given the fact that, looked at through the lens of today’s sensitivities, much of what he wrote is completely unacceptable. But the tone of the coverage was largely affectionate, as people paid tribute not only to him but to the memory of themselves when they read him.
There they were in my copy of The New Journalism, his greatest hits: from Radical Chic, the sound of Leonard Bernstein eating a piece of cheese (“mmmmmmmmm”). From the Flak Catchers, phonetically spelled dialect that would give Wuthering Heights a run for its money.
Best of all, the cheeky quote at the front of the book, chosen by Wolfe and acknowledged to be the “first 21 words of” the honorary doctor of letters citation for Saul Bellow at a Yale commencement ceremony in 1972: “In a time when so much of narrative art has yielded itself to reportage, you have sustained a vital tradition of …” Wolfe was always a full-throated defender of the superiority of journalists over prissy stay-at-home novelists.
The Bonfire of the Vanities was the first book I read after taking my A-levels. I was 18, haven’t read it since, and can still unspool whole scenes in my mind, including the phone doughnut and the master of the universe furiously trying to get a leash on his dog. It was worth putting up with a few silly sound effects for that.
• Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist