Thirty years ago, B.T.W. (before Tom Wolfe), I was an aspiring postmodern novelist. An undergraduate in the Yale English department, I marinated in the wordplay of James Joyce. I steeped myself in Thomas Pynchon. I would write novels that would sell in the tens. On the side, I would deconstruct other people’s novels, locate the damning signifiers that were hidden deep within, undetected even by their authors. Then a friend gave me a stack of unwanted books from a class she had completed. One of them was The Right Stuff.
To this day, no book has ever hit me harder. The acuity of Wolfe’s social analysis, the depth of his reporting, and most of all the mad, exhilarating gallop of his prose style rerouted my mind, redirected my intentions. Wolfe’s impassioned admiration for the courage and ingenuity of test pilot Chuck Yeager and the Mercury space-program astronauts jarred all my ironic, postmodernist, Ivory Tower assumptions. I was a Mike Dukakis–loving liberal Democrat, but in the book’s jovial respect for what would later be known as red-state culture (it was Wolfe who popularized the phrase “good ol’ boy”) came the first low rumblings that I might someday become patriotic, maybe even conservative.
I was taking a class in the Literature department. Literature was completely different from English. In English we read books. In Literature we “decoded” “texts.” In English our purpose was to suss out the author’s meaning. In Literature our purpose was brutally to impose our own meanings on the author. If the author couldn’t possibly have meant what we claimed, it just made our arguments that much cleverer. Then I read Wolfe’s book-length 1975 essay of art criticism, The Painted Word. In barely 100 pages, Wolfe essentially dismantled everything Yale was teaching me about art and criticism. Wolfe exposed how critics think, how they determine taste for a gullible but intellectually insecure broader public. He proved it was possible, if only for a supremely self-confident observer such as himself, to maintain common sense and ignore the experts’ shallow, socially needy, self-serving standards, their vacuous quest for “authenticity” and their fatuous attachment to bohemia, what he famously dubbed radical chic in still another book I devoured.
Wolfe, who had both attended Yale (where he got a Ph.D. in American Studies) and been a reporter for my hometown newspaper (the Springfield Union in Massachusetts), also turned out to be the Class Day speaker at my 1989 graduation. He was my new role model, and so he would remain. I ditched Joyce and Pynchon and turned my sights to journalism, criticism, contrarianism — Wolfeism. Never again would I take it on faith that what my betters were telling me was true or right. Always I would question prevailing orthodoxy.
Tom Wolfe wrote a culture-defining book, and then he did it again, and then he did it again, and maybe even yet again. At the end of 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, he captured the disillusionment of hippie utopianism in three words he set down from Ken Kesey: “We blew it.” Borrowed by Peter Fonda for the following year’s hippie blockbuster Easy Rider, they became the self-chastening summation of a decade of wasted youth. When The Bonfire of the Vanities hit in 1987, everyone who had been struggling to define Eighties New York knew they had been bested. The dead center of the target had been struck. Wolfe caught the metropolis in between two covers, with his merciless Al Sharpton lampoon the Reverend Bacon, his British tabloid hack Peter Fallow (sometimes said to be based on Christopher Hitchens, but more likely the party-page fixture Anthony Haden-Guest), his “social X-rays” who were “starved to perfection.” Walking around this preposterous and prodigious city, I often think of Rawlie Thorpe’s words to Sherman McCoy: “If you want to live in New York, you’ve got to insulate, insulate, insulate.” Nearly matching Bonfire’s panoramic scope is 1998’s equally Zola-tinged novel A Man in Full, reckoning with race, real estate, and debt in Atlanta. No student of Wolfe should put off reading this masterpiece either.
Six years later came what turned out to Wolfe’s last essential novel and the one that is most pertinent today: the campus saga I Am Charlotte Simmons, which upon its appearance in 2004 was derided by the New York Times’ enduringly useless critic Michiko Kakutani in a calculated preemptive attack well before the book’s publication. Kakutani claimed, in one of the most obtuse reviews in a career ardently dedicated to being wrong, that Wolfe “does not tackle the zeitgeist” but merely belabored the obvious: “that students crave sex and beer, love to party.” Writing for the New York Times Book Review under the derisive headline “Peeping Tom,” Jacob Weisberg also suggested Wolfe was a naïve old prude and mocked him for perceiving any problems with college partying, saying Charlotte’s point of view boiled down to “And — oh my God! — They’re havin’ say-yex!” Adds Weisberg, “The omniscient narrator refrains from explicit condemnation of what Charlotte surveys, but disgust is evident in his sober stare.” He goes on to ask, incredulously, “Is this hellish vision of sex, drunks and gangsta rap the real life of American college students today?”
In fact I Am Charlotte Simmons was and is blisteringly on-point. It’s a portrayal of a flourishing girl who is sent reeling into depression after being used like a disposable sex doll by the fraternity-ruled hookup culture at a Duke-like southern university. The entire novel is an early air-raid siren for what feminists today call “rape culture” and what parents of daughters most fear: That their girls’ sense of self-worth will be destroyed by the predatory sex scene. That a then-74-year-old author was able to identify and illuminate this alarming cultural trend even as cultural commandants insisted there was nothing to see here stands as one of the most astounding feats of journalism this century.
Wolfe was on more than one occasion an honored guest of National Review or National Review Institute, giving (for instance) the address at the William F. Buckley Prize dinner in New York City last October in one of his last public appearances, but his conservatism was overstated. He voted for Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama and habitually voted for the winner in every presidential election, except when he picked Mitt Romney in 2012 and Ross Perot in 1992. What really drove the Left crazy about Wolfe was his habit of wicked, ruthless noticing of the foibles of so many of their most cherished icons, and how he trained his satiric force on them. For half an American century he scythed through folly, from the Merry Pranksters on the West Coast to the Pantheristas in Leonard Bernstein’s penthouse on Park Avenue. It’s a commonplace to say he was our Zola, our Trollope. But he was also our Mencken.