Like Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe’s words caught people’s attention because he didn’t sound like any other writer who came before him. The first of his genre-bending essays was famously written when Wolfe was procrastinating, and his editor was panicking that Wolfe wouldn’t turn in the necessary words in time. Because Wolfe wrote regularly to his parents, the editor asked him to write a letter to him covering the story he had been sent to California for – a piece on the then-incredulous trend of custom-made cars in 1962.
What was “sensational” about Wolfe’s prose was what Michael Lewis called “his ability to see what others have missed, or found unworthy of attention.” Wolfe was an unhurried man, Lewis notes, who “seems to have been entirely free of pre-professional angst. The notion of roaming the earth and groping toward a purpose in life now seems ridiculous to 22-year-olds, but that’s the notion Wolfe more or less embraced.” Through the ’60s and ’70s, he wrote best-selling essay collections with titles like The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965) and Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970).
Twenty-two years after his first book came out, Wolfe published his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987). Between 1987 and 2012, he put out three more novels. Each of those books was similar to his non-fiction in that it involved extensive research. Michiko Kakutani, literary critic and former chief book critic for The New York Times, described his fictional characters perfectly when she wrote, “Wolfe tends to build up his characters from the outside in. The reverse of a Method actor, he’s a craftsman who believes that people can be defined by externals like money and clothing, that their behaviour is largely driven by social context and status (or lack of it).”
We take a look at his fiction, which though lesser known and less well-received than his essays, was equally invested in reporting American society as Tom Wolfe saw it.
The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987)
His first, most famous novel was initially serialised in Rolling Stone Magazine over 27 issues – an idea Wolfe got from the works of Charles Dickens and William Thackeray. He wanted The Bonfire of the Vanities to be an American novel in the vein of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair which revealingly was originally called Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society. The novel told the story of a Wall Street bond trader in the 1980s who accidentally hits a young black man after taking a wrong turn into a Bronx neighbourhood. It was the culmination of months of research shadowing homicide squads and attending criminal court sessions. It is considered his best novel which the other three – particularly the last two – would not live up to.
A Man in Full (1998)
Eleven years later, Wolfe returned with a second novel dealing with inter-racial crime – the alleged rape of a white heiress by a young black and successful Georgia Tech athlete in Atlanta in the 1990s. It brings the barely concealed racial tensions of the city to the fore, and a prominent black lawyer steps in to represent the accused. In the backdrop are Atlanta’s wealthy and corrupt, and the people who work for them. The amounts of money that are spent, owed and earned at the expense of other people are unfathomable. First wives must manufacture social standing of their own when replaced with younger second wives. At close to 750 pages, the book is a sprawling caricature of Atlanta where social context and plot are far more important than any single character.
I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004)
Wolfe was in his seventies when he wrote a third novel from the perspective of a sheltered eighteen-year-old woman in university. Charlotte Simmons arrives at university from a remote place in the Appalachian Mountains to a world far less interested in academics than she is. Her initial horror of frat-house culture and college debauchery and eventual surrender to it’s temptations form the unusual plot of an ageing novelist’s work. Though the novel was written after Wolfe went undercover on several university campuses, it is widely acknowledged to be on the weaker side of his cultural reportage. He also won the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award for lines in the novel such as “…Slither slither slither slither went the tongue, but the hand that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns ... “ Wolfe insisted it was his intention to write it so it wouldn’t excite anyone.
Back to Blood (2012)
One reviewer pointed out that his last novel, Back to Blood, works like the final piece of a triptych that includes Bonfire and A Man in Full in that the three take up societal, cultural and racial pressures in New York, Atlanta and Miami by turn. Back to Blood follows the story of a Cuban-American cop who makes front-page news after he arrests a Cuban asylum-seeker. It distances him from the Cuban community in Miami, and endears him to white colleagues and white citizens in Miami. In a city with a significant immigration population, every aspect of his life is redefined in the aftermath of the arrest. Wolfe’s last novel is filled with “bursts of asterisks, the scattering of exclamation points and ellipses” because as the New York Times wrote he was “astonished by America, and he expressed that astonishment in sentences that zinged up and out like bottle rockets.”