Tom Wolfe – GQ

Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Junior enters his sitting room, dressed as Tom Wolfe. It’s mid-September in New York City and hot out. Wolfe, who is 81 years old and lean as a racing greyhound, is wearing a chalk-white linen suit and a cerulean-blue shirt, a white pocket handkerchief with navy trim, leather spectator spat boots in black and white, cream socks and an ivory-coloured tie with tennis-racquet motif. It’s a mild shock to discover Wolfe’s mouth is full of gold fillings. Gold! Trust a dentist to ruin a perfect colour scheme.

Wolfe lives in splendour on the 14th floor of an apartment block on the Upper East Side. From this corner room (parquet floor… ceiling-high bookshelves stacked with hefty volumes on art and architecture… a suite of low-backed, pneumatically plumped sofas in buttery yellow… a working fireplace… an ultramarine baby grand piano upon which rests a photograph of Tom Wolfe playing a piano) he has a view of Central Park through the west-facing windows and a handsome south-facing view downtown. The crown of the Chrysler Building twinkles, 37 blocks away.

Authors don’t live in apartments like this. Or do they?

A story: before The Bonfire Of The Vanities – Wolfe’s wide-angle, wildly popular novel of New York, and the era of Eighties greed and the Wall Street “Masters Of The Universe” – was published as a book, selling more than three million copies, it had appeared in serial form in Rolling Stone magazine. Nobody writes serial novels these days, but Wolfe wanted to emulate his 19th-century heroes – Dickens and Balzac and Zola – who had worked that way. Also, this was his first novel, and he’d danced around it for too long, and he needed a gun to his head. So, every two weeks for 27 editions of Rolling Stone, he produced a new chapter of The Bonfire Of The Vanities.

The narrative that appeared in that magazine in 1984 and 1985 diverges in several significant ways from the novel that was published in 1987. But the most striking difference lies at the heart of the book. In the serial form, Sherman McCoy, the lead character – the apotheosis of greed; the man who couldn’t find a way to live on $1m a year – was a writer, not a bond trader. A writer!

Wolfe’s former editor and long-time friend Byron Dobell read the Rolling Stone material and was horrified. He told me recently that when he saw the original story, he took Wolfe to one side and said, “‘Tom, this hero can’t possibly be a writer. He lives like the supreme cream of New York society in the richest manner possible. Writers don’t live that way. It has to be somebody connected with Wall Street.’ And in the book that’s what he did. And people think of it as the book about Wall Street!”

Sherman McCoy, the Master Of The Universe, as a hardscrabble hack? Crazy, right? But now I’m sitting in this beautiful apartment (it’s not just the view of the park and the Chrysler Building, it’s the immaculate buttons on the doorman’s uniform… the two wooden monkeys, wearing red Civil War-era doublets, holding candles on the mantelpiece… the six-foot, book-shaped coffee table… the maid who brings us iced water… the single white orchid arranged like an angle-poise lamp over a side table… the silver picture frames holding photographs of Wolfe’s daughter winning riding competitions… the horseshoe desk in the adjoining study… the lamp on the desk with the boater-hat lampshade, whose shape and colour perfectly matches the hat tucked under the arm of the German dandy in the vintage poster on the far wall… the four-foot-high portrait of Wolfe as a young man, floppy hair rampant… the vase full of vast dried purple hydrangeas… flowers as big as a man’s head… and did I mention the baby grand?) I can see where Wolfe got the idea.

When I suggest that his success may have offered him a unique perspective on the life of a working author, he acts faux-demure. Wolfe speaks softly at the best of times. But now, with his eyes dancing, and his sotto voce retreating into a dusty whisper, he says, “I do what I can.”

His left arm sweeps out, regally, and the suggestion of a smile arrives at the corner of his mouth. “We’re in a side street. Not on the park.”

Wolfe’s latest novel will keep him in Upper East Side penury a while longer. Back To Blood – a huge, Bonfires-esque novel about Miami, and race, and politics, and sex, and city chaos – was sold to Little, Brown for $7m in 2008, ending a 42-year relationship between Wolfe and the publishing house of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. (That decision was made, Wolfe tells me, for the simple reason that Little, Brown offered a better deal. And $7m does sound tempting.)

How good is it? Hard to say. Finishing Back To Blood was not unlike the sensation of watching Andy Murray win the US Open. One feels not so much joy as relief. After the toe-curling embarrassment of I Am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe’s 2004 novel about sexual life on an American university campus, he has certainly recaptured his <em>brio</em>. Devotees are invited to surf a tide of Wolfe favourites (<em>loamy loins… declivities fore and aft… prognathous jaws… sternocleidomastoid muscles</em>) as the several story lines of life in the immigrant city rattle and twist together.

In truth, the book left me a little cold. One can admire Wolfe’s skill – the set pieces at the Miami Art Basel fair and at a regatta-cum-orgy are delicious – but his characters are ultimately too cartoonish to make one care very much what happens to them. However, I make a prediction: Back To Blood will sell by the boatload.

What makes Tom Wolfe a seven-million dollar man? He is a writer who has shown us how we live. He has coined phrases (“radical chic”, “the Me Decade”, “Masters Of The Universe”) that adroitly capture styles of life and spots of time. In the Sixties, his prose fireworks formed the vanguard of the New Journalism movement – long-form reporting that eschewed traditional proprieties to tell stories that were rich in detail, kinetic in delivery – whose influence on nonfiction is still profound. Meanwhile, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (his book about Ken Kesey and the LSD revolution), and The Right Stuff (about the Project Mercury astronauts) are among the great works of American narrative journalism.

New Journalism was concerned with using the techniques of fiction to tell factual stories. When Wolfe began writing novels in the Eighties, he reversed that equation. The information-gathering techniques of journalism were used to create fiction. Wolfe spent time in the streets and the courthouses and the trading floors of the city, and watched the real world unfold. He then unspooled this reporting into his fictional universe.

You might argue there’s nothing new in this technique, and you’d be right. But Wolfe’s genius has always been to enshrine his approach as a literary movement: to create the terms by which he wishes to be judged. With his magazine writing, he coined the phrase “New Journalism”. With his novels, he made a case for his own reporting-heavy style through much-read and much-pilloried treatises (of which, more later), such as “Stalking The Billion-Footed Beast”.

The point is: he’s not just a writer, he’s a brand. The white suits, the big themes, the jazzy punctuation, the self-serving polemics – it’s all of a piece. And big brands get big bucks. In 2007, it was reported that the ill-fated Portfolio magazine paid Wolfe in the region of $12 a word for a 7,000-word article about hedge funds. If they did pay this sum (I haven’t been able to verify that figure, and Wolfe can’t remember, saying only that “it sounds ridiculous… but Condé Nast have always been generous”) it was for a simple reason: they knew what they were getting for their money.

It’s hard to imagine Wolfe as a boy, but he must have been one. He was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1931, and became interested in writing when he saw his agronomist father compiling reports for The Southern Planter – an agricultural magazine, which he also edited. Wolfe was six or seven years old at the time. His interest in writing never waned. Having attended Washington and Lee University, and then Yale, he wrote to more than 100 newspapers asking for a reporter’s job. Of the three responses he received, two were rejections. He went to work for the Springfield Union, a paper in Massachusetts, graduating to the Washington Post, and then the New York Herald Tribune in 1962.

It was in New York, in the early Sixties, that he and a group of young journalists with ideas above their station began experimenting with what would become known as New Journalism. It’s possible, if you have an interest in Wolfe, that you already know the lore about the movement’s inception. You’ll know how Wolfe’s first famous piece of New Journalism, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flaked Streamline Baby”, was born after the writer became blocked having reported on the burgeoning hot-rod car scene in California. (Wolfe was told to write a memo to Byron Dobell explaining the story so that an Esquire staffer could rewrite the piece – but the memo itself was so joyous and colourful that the magazine took the “Dear Byron” from the top of the memo and published the text verbatim.)

You’ll also know how, in 1965, Gay Talese was commissioned to interview Frank Sinatra, who refused his request. Talese was undeterred. He wrote the seminal celebrity profile “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” by tagging along with the crooner’s entourage for three months and recording the stories of Sinatra’s hangers-on.

But you won’t know this story, because it’s about two articles that never saw the light of day. On 22 November 1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated, Wolfe and Talese had staff newspaper jobs at the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Times respectively. When the news from Dallas hit the wires, both men were separately instructed by their city editors to pound the streets of Manhattan and garner reaction to the assassination.

It’s not difficult to imagine what the editors had in mind. This was the day America lost its innocence. At the epicentre of the nation’s greatest city, women with smudged mascara would be rending their clothes… Groups of strangers would be gathered around radios, eager for news… There would be tears! There would be grief! New York would be a city in mourning!

The two young feature writers left their respective offices in midtown, and bumped into each other heading into the subway. Recently, Talese wrote to me and told me what happened next.

“I knew [Wolfe] slightly at this point (I think I recall working on a story with him in which he took notes in shorthand; and I was impressed: I’d never known a reporter before who knew shorthand, and still don’t). Anyway, at the subway entrance, we shook hands and decided to share a taxi, going first to Wall Street and eventually together strolled around different parts of Manhattan to get some sense of the public’s response.

“We spent a few hours together – going from downtown Manhattan (Wall Street, Chinatown, Little Italy); then came uptown, walking around the theatre district in the West Forties, uptown toward Columbus Circle… And I personally did not see much reaction at all from New Yorkers. I didn’t see anybody crying in the streets, didn’t overhear anybody lamenting aloud about the fatal shooting in Dallas etc. Yes, people had heard the news over the radio, or people were talking about the event among themselves as they stood waiting for a traffic light on a street corner; but there was no sign of the mournful masses that would later be the signature image on television.

“After I reported what I’d seen in New York, the editor didn’t want me to write anything. What I’d seen, or had not seen, did not conform to the ‘expected’ or ‘ideal’ response the situation seemed to call for, at least in the editor’s eyes. So there was no story in the Times by me that day. Nor, as I recall, was there anything by Tom Wolfe in the Trib that day. Here, on the same assignment, were two young men who would be identified as ‘New Journalists’ covering the same story and [on this great, headline-making day] getting nothing about it in print. We could not write what we saw, because we didn’t see what the editors and TV directors ‘saw’.”

When I ask Wolfe about that day, and Talese’s story, he says, “My God,” and chuckles. He remembers the occasion only slightly differently. He certainly recalls a muted reaction to Kennedy’s death. But he also remembers that, downtown, different immigrant groups were finding ways to blame each other for the tragedy.

“I went to Little Italy and everybody thought that their natural enemies had done it. You know, the Italians didn’t like the Jews so they blamed it on the Jews. The Jews blamed it on the Chinese. The Chinese blamed it on the Italians. And I thought these stories were hilarious. But when I got back to the newspaper… I’m sitting there looking for my piece and it’s not there. All they wanted was little old ladies collapsing in front of St Patrick’s Cathedral. That was it. They didn’t want any turmoil in the population over who did it, and that kind of thing. Newspapers are the last redoubt of people who want to observe the niceties. It’s strange. Something big happens, and whatever the proper reaction should be, that’s what you get.”

Two points about this anecdote. The first is that New Journalism was not, primarily, a new or unified way of writing; it was an attempt at a new way of seeing. Wolfe and Talese (and Terry Southern and Jimmy Breslin, and all the rest of the gang) viewed stories in a new way. They were incapable of fitting reality to expectations. The details and characters that had seemed inconsequential to traditional journalists became important.

The second, and more significant point about the story, is this. Wolfe sees – has always seen – individuals as representatives of their group. The Italians blamed the Jews who blamed the Chinese. People are first and foremost a member of a race, or a class, or a certain stratum of society. In this regard, he’s a sociologist.

Wolfe explained as much to me when we talked about his novels. “You need psychology. But you don’t have a choice: that vertical line [of psychology] is going to intersect with this broad plane which is the society. And nobody can be a true individual because whatever you want to be is going to be pushed around and changed. We are all tremendously affected by the society that we’re in.”

This may sound a little wonky, but if you want to understand Wolfe, you have to know that this preoccupation with society and status informs all his work. His novelist heroes, in particular Honoré de Balzac (after whom he names a restaurant in Back To Blood) left their garrets and observed what social life in the cities was like. But, says Wolfe, American novelists don’t do that any more.

He believes the American novel took a wrong turn after John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath in 1939, when authors rejected the reporter’s notebook and the big, realistic novels of contemporary society, in favour of narrowly mining their character’s psychology. Since then, everyone’s been doing it wrong, with one notable exception: Tom Wolfe. (You don’t have to be a genius to see a few flaws in this argument. For a start, plenty of modern novelists go out and report. Of course they do. I could tell you a dozen stories about novelists who have spent months embedded in the most unlovely circumstances for the sake of their books. Secondly, what’s wrong with exploring the interior as well as the exterior lives of characters? If this isn’t the terrain of novelists, whose is it?)

Wolfe’s views on modern American fiction have not made him popular among his peers. After the publication in 1998 of A Man In Full, Wolfe’s sprawling novel of the South, Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving castigated Wolfe in a feline literary punch-up. Updike wrote that Wolfe’s novels amounted “to entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form”. Mailer said reading A Man In Full was like having sex with an obese woman: “Once she gets on top it’s all over. Fall in love or be asphyxiated.”

Wolfe likes a fight. He responded by calling Updike and Mailer “two old piles of bones”. Irving then weighed in on Mailer and Updike’s behalf. Reading Wolfe, he said, could make you “wince”. It was “journalistic hyperbole described as fiction”. And to this, as, perhaps, a final word on the subject, Wolfe replied, “Irving is a great admirer of Dickens. But what writer does he see now, in the last year, constantly compared to Dickens? Not John Irving, but Tom Wolfe… It must gnaw at him terribly.”

Wolfe remains unapologetic.

“I have got so much abuse,” he tells me. “People said I was just patting myself on the back by [saying these things]. I would be an idiot if I believed in this method, and I didn’t use it. But, yeah, in effect I’m saying, ‘Hey! I do the right thing! You oughta take a look!’”

Does he really believe there are no other novelists since 1939 worth reading? Or is he just being provocative?

“Oh there are some good writers,” he says. “But they may not do themselves a favour. Philip Roth is a fabulous writer, but he pretty much stays within his own life. He’s so good – I mean practically anything I’ve ever read of his I’ve really enjoyed. He just has tremendous talent. But I think he should have given himself a break and gone deeper into the society. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said every person has a great autobiography to write, if only that person can isolate the things that have been unique to his life… but he didn’t say everyone had two.”

So that’s it. Philip Roth is OK, but could do better. I mention Don DeLillo. Wolfe hasn’t read him, but promises to give him a try. “I’m willing to accept some exceptions,” he says. “As I keep saying, I think the American novel is dying. But for that reason, I seldom read them.”

It may not surprise you to know that Wolfe’s conservatism spills into other areas. Back To Blood is, on one level, reactionary. As Wolfe explains, “It’s not about wet blood, it’s about bloodlines.” The novel charts representatives of various racial groups, all of whom are defined by their background, more than any other factor. No one can escape the fate of being Cuban or Haitian, black or white.

Indeed, the novel’s title comes from a thought-rant by its WASP newspaper editor, a man named Edward Topping IV, which appears in the book’s prologue. Topping has just been beaten to a parking space unfairly by a Cuban-American woman, and is quietly fuming.

“Everybody… all of them… it’s back to blood! Religion is dying… but everybody still has to believe in something… So, my people, that leaves only our blood, the bloodlines that course through our very bodies, to unite us. ‘La Raza!’ as the Puerto Ricans cry out. ‘The Race!’ cries the whole world. All people, all people everywhere, have but one last thing on their minds – back to blood!”
You get the idea.

It’s dangerous to extrapolate an author’s beliefs from his characters. But Back To Blood is so concerned with race – the central character, a Cuban-American police officer, is, for instance, a “one-man race riot” – that you begin to wonder how much Wolfe’s views collide with those of his most splenetic actors.

“I didn’t think about it politically at all,” he says. “I just think it’s simple fact. So many people in this country have a dual loyalty. They have loyalty to America, but they also are determined to have their parade up Fifth Avenue once a year… a Cuban parade or a Puerto Rican parade – many other countries. So they really don’t forget.”

“I’ll find myself doing the same thing. When the big debate began over whether abortion should be allowed, there was some really old-style views from White Anglo Saxon Protestants in Virginia, where I grew up. One of them was Jerry Falwell, and the other was Pat Buchanan [both firebrand fundamentalist Christians].And they were being called, practically, Nazis. And it got my back up.”

Here, Wolfe begins to laugh. “You know, they were wrong by saying that the breakdown of morality had brought on all these different things. But I’m not going to sit down and let them be attacked the way they were being attacked. They were being labelled as right-wing extremists. Forget the political aspects. They were against sin – and they looked upon abortion as sin. When I grew up, everybody felt that way. And in the neighbourhood where
I grew up, in Richmond, the view of the church was the view that everybody had.”

What to make of this? Supporting Buchanan places you squarely on the crackpot right of American politics, but I’m not sure that’s what Wolfe has just done. He’s arguing he had a knee-jerk reaction to his people – WASPs from Virginia – being attacked. The extension of this argument is that all racial or social groups, be they Cuban-Americans, or Haitian-Americans, or WASPs, protect their own.

It’s well-known that Wolfe’s personal politics are to the right of centre. Byron Dobell tells me he briefly fell out with Wolfe over a story called “The Ambush At Fort Bragg” – about a scandal at a military base in which soldiers are accused of a homophobic attack – which was, he says, “anti-Semitic, subtly, anti-black, subtly, and anti-gay, not so subtly.” Although he has now reconciled with Wolfe, Dobell says his friend is a “Puritan in Cavalier clothing”.

Wolfe won’t tell me who he voted for at the last election (“There’s a reason there’s a curtain at the back of the booth”) or what he thinks of Barack Obama (“I really haven’t been paying attention”), except that the current president has been impotent to change America, in the same way that many presidents before him have been.

“American government is like a train on a track. You have the people on the left shouting; you have the people on the right. But the train’s on track. They just keep ploughing ahead. So you find things like: Ronald Reagan comes in, he’s going to get rid of the Department of Education. Eight years later it’s bigger than it’s ever been. Then Bill Clinton and his wife are going to overhaul the healthcare system. That lasted about three weeks. You couldn’t go that far from the train…”

Scratch Wolfe a little, however, and you find him particularly irked by political correctness and by the liberal orthodoxies he sees sweeping the country. He talks about the recent incident in which the president of the Chick-fil-A fast-food chain said he didn’t believe in single-sex marriage. “Oh my God, the reaction with the columnists here – they thought he was a neo-Nazi. The religious aspects of it were never addressed, it was: you just can’t say this.”

With that catalyst, he gets on a roll. He begins a colloquy about the Sermon on the Mount, and the Emperor Constantine, and how “radical chic” has become mainstream. His example? The prevailing, quasi-religious adherence to Darwinism in America.

“College faculties, today! You do not dare indicate that you don’t believe in Darwinism. You just become a persona non grata. They’re not going to trash your house or anything, but it’s a real sin. And that’s very much a fashion. I think of evolution as a myth, like the Norse myths, the Greek myths – anybody’s myths. But it was created for a rational age.”

He tells me he’s writing a book on this subject, entitled The Human Beast – due next year. But wait. Wolfe doesn’t believe in evolution?

“I think that it works perfectly well until you get to Man,” he says.

How to explain the evolution of Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Junior? His life looks appealing from almost any angle one cares to view it from. In person, he is affable, inquisitive, and in possession of perfect manners. He sells novels like Coca-Cola sells fizzy pop. He is in remarkable shape for a man of 81, and has, he tells me, nine books planned for the coming years. He is married to a smart, engaging woman, lives in a gorgeous apartment, and has two grown-up children. The weekend I fly home from New York, he’ll be in the Hamptons, in the sunshine.

But something’s missing. As the years go by, he is waxing cranky. His finest quality as a writer has been to inhabit the worlds of his subjects. But what worlds would he now want to live in, other than his own? It seems that where once he was pleasantly baffled by the oddities of the American social carnival, he now disapproves of the whole damn show.

What irks him, perhaps, is that for all his private happiness and public success – for all the ultramarine pianos and park views and silver picture frames – a grand prize eludes him: literary greatness.

I ask him, shortly before I leave, whether he yearns for the professional esteem of his peers. He tells me that the verdict on him, so far, is only that he is “popular”.

Does he need more than that? Does he need for someone to call him great?

“Well, they haven’t gotten around to that yet,” he says, smiling. “But, I’d be very grateful. When they do, you let me know.”