Tom Wolfe, an innovative journalist and novelist whose Technicolor, wildly punctuated prose brought to life the worlds of California surfers, car customizers, astronauts and Manhattan’s moneyed status-seekers in works like “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” “The Right Stuff” and “Bonfire of the Vanities,” died Monday in a New York City hospital. He was 88.
Wolfe, who had lived in New York since joining the New York Herald Tribune as a reporter in 1962, had been hospitalized with an infection.
In his use of novelistic techniques in his nonfiction, Wolfe, beginning in the 1960s, helped create the enormously influential hybrid known as New Journalism.
But as an unabashed contrarian, he was nearly as well known for his attire as his satire. He was instantly recognizable as he strolled down Madison Avenue — a slender man in his spotless three-piece vanilla bespoke suit, pinstriped silk shirt with a starched white high collar, watch on a fob, faux spats and white shoes. Once asked to describe his get-up, Wolfe replied brightly, “Neo-pretentious.”
It was a typically wry response from a writer who found delight in lacerating the pretentiousness of others. He had a pitiless eye and a penchant for spotting trends and then giving them names, some of which — like “Radical Chic” and “the Me Decade” — became American idioms.
William F. Buckley Jr., writing in National Review, put it more simply: “He is probably the most skillful writer in America — I mean by that he can do more things with words than anyone else.”
From 1965 to 1981, Wolfe produced nine nonfiction books. “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” an account of his reportorial travels in California with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters as they spread the gospel of LSD, remains a classic chronicle of the counterculture, “still the best account — fictional or non, in print or on film — of the genesis of the ’60s hipster subculture,” media critic Jack Shafer wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review on the book’s 40th anniversary.
Even more impressive, to many critics, was “The Right Stuff,” his exhaustively reported narrative about the first U.S. astronauts and the Mercury space program. The book, adapted into a film in 1983, made test pilot Chuck Yeager a cultural hero and added yet another phrase to the English language. It won the National Book Award.
At the same time, Wolfe continued to turn out a stream of essays and magazine pieces for New York, Harper’s and Esquire. His theory of literature, which he preached in print and in person and to anyone who would listen, was that journalism and nonfiction had “wiped out the novel as American literature’s main event.”
After “The Right Stuff,” published in 1979, he confronted what he called “the question that rebuked every writer who had made a point of experimenting with nonfiction over the preceding 10 or 15 years: Are you merely ducking the big challenge — The Novel?”
The answer came with “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Published initially as a serial in Rolling Stone magazine and in book form in 1987 after extensive revisions, it offered a sweeping, bitingly satirical picture of money, power, greed and vanity in New York during the shameless excesses of the 1980s.
Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr. was born March 2, 1930, in Richmond, Va. His father was a professor of agronomy at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. His mother, Helen Perkins Hughes Wolfe, a garden designer, encouraged him to become an artist and gave him a love of reading.
He graduated cum laude from Washington and Lee University in 1951 with a bachelor’s degree in English and enough skill as a pitcher to earn a tryout with the New York Giants. He did not make the cut.
He enrolled at Yale in the American studies program and received his doctorate in 1957. After sending out job applications to more than 100 newspapers and receiving three responses, two of them “no,” he went to work as a general assignment reporter at the Springfield Union in Springfield, Mass., and later joined the staff of the Washington Post.
In 1962, Wolfe joined the Herald Tribune as a reporter on the city desk, where he found his voice as a social chronicler.