May 15, 2018

THE LAST AMERICAN NOVELIST:

Tom Wolfe, Innovative Nonfiction Writer and Novelist, Dies at 88 (Deirdre Carmody and William Grimes, May 15, 2018, NY Times)

Once asked to describe his get-up, Mr. 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.

His talent as a writer and caricaturist was evident from the start in his verbal pyrotechnics and perfect mimicry of speech patterns, his meticulous reporting, and his creative use of pop language and explosive punctuation.

"As a titlist of flamboyance he is without peer in the Western world," Joseph Epstein wrote in the The New Republic. "His prose style is normally shotgun baroque, sometimes edging over into machine-gun rococo, as in his article on Las Vegas which begins by repeating the word 'hernia' 57 times."

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 Mr. 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 sixties hipster subculture," the press 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 American astronauts and the Mercury space program. The book, adapted into a film in 1983 with Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid and Ed Harris, made the test pilot Chuck Yeager a cultural hero and added yet another phrase to the English language.

At the same time, Mr. 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 non-fiction 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 ten or fifteen years: Are you merely ducking the big challenge -- The Novel?"



Posted by at May 15, 2018 11:44 AM

  

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