May 17, 2018

Remembering Tom Wolfe by some of his best lines (and attire)


Tom Wolfe at the White House. Photo by Susan Sterner.

The literary world has been piling up the panegyrics all week for Tom Wolfe, the fire-crackling prose writer and purveyor of New Journalism who died on Monday at the age of eighty-eight.

Picking up a book by Tom Wolfe was like picking up an ungrounded wire. It was going to give you a jolt, it was going to make your hair stand on end, and, if it didn’t kill you, then it was going to make you aware of its power. In every book, guaranteed, you’d find a line that just took out your senses, forced you back into a chair as your brain marinated in the collection of mind-blowing clauses that made up a Wolfean sentence. Even a single word, in Wolfe’s hand, could land a lunch right to the eyes. Take the lexical one-two punch of “hernia” that comes out swinging at the opening of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby a work about demolition derbies in Las Vegas and Wolfe’s first book:

Hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, HERNia; hernia, HERNia; hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, eight is the point, the point is eight, hernia, hernia, HERNia; hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, all right, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hard eight, hernia, hernia, hernia, HERNia, hernia,, hernia, hernia, HERNia, hernia, hernia, hernia, HERNia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia

If you’re counting, that’s fifty-seven hernias that are not once rested by a period.

Wolfe also had a knack for picking up the vernacular of his subjects and twisting it into literary gold. No where is this more apparent than in The Electric Kool-Aid Test, in which he tags along with Ken Kesey to investigate the counterculture movement. Who needs psilocybin-induced revelations when you can get high straight from the page:

A perception of the cosmic unity of this higher level. And a feeling of timelessness, the feeling that what we know as time is only the result of a naive faith in causality – the notion that A in the past caused B in the present, which will cause C in the future, when actually A, B, and C are all part of a pattern that can be truly understood only by opening the doors of perception and experiencing it… in this moment… this supreme moment… this Kairos.

Deep. Also, in typical hippie-to-techie comearoundism, Kairos, an Ancient Greek word that refers to a kind of “nowness,” is now the title a well-regarded peer-reviewed tech, rhetoric, and pedagogy journal.

Speaking of tech, while I’m not going to quote from The Right Stuff, Wolfe’s book about NASA’s first astronauts, let us instead turn to his under-appreciated art criticism. Wolfe knew how to sweep his subject into a rhetorical whirlwind — as he did with Swiss architect Le Corbusier in From Bauhaus to Our House:

Le Corbusier was the sort of relentlessly rational intellectual that only France loves wholeheartedly, the logician who flies higher and higher in ever-decreasing concentric circles until, with one last, utterly inevitable induction, he disappears up his own fundamental aperture and emerges in the fourth dimension as a needle-thin umber bird.

And coming from a connoisseur of white garments, this gem from The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe’s first novel, is particularly cutting:

Beside her marched a porter with an aluminum dolly cart heaped with luggage, a prodigious amount of it, cream-colored leather, with chocolate colored trim at the edges. Vulgar, but not as vulgar as Louis Vuitton…

In case you are wondering what designers Wolfe did prefer, his unique taste in suits was paid homage by Kerry Pieri in Harper’s Bazaar (I smell a renaissance of la blanc tailorship on the horizon).

Wolfe’s most masterful verbal acrobatics may have shone in his invention of neologisms, some of which remain staunchly commonplace. My favorite? “Radical Chic” — as in, like, you know, when affluent upper-crust one-percenter fleetingly champions a radical cause, for reasons of fashion. Thanks for that, Tom!

So let us pour out a martini in honor of a bodacious writer whose like will not soon appear in America again.


Michael Barron is an editor at Melville House.