A Passing: Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe, clad in an impeccable three-piece white suit, created a quantum leap in descriptive writing, changing the entire landscape for the use of descriptive language. Prior to Wolfe, descriptive articles were very staid and correct. Wolfe’s hybrid departures into fanciful and colorful language began the “New Journalism”, pointing out Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion and others.

I think he began the art of observing phenomena not seen in the same light by others, describing what he saw in polychromatic language, probably more accurate and definitely more harlequin than what came before.

“The Kandy-Colored, Tangerine Flake, Streamlined Baby” (1965). An expanded look at automobile customizing in the 60s. “The Pump House Gang” (1968) An anthology exploring various aspects of the counterculture of the 1960s. The most famous story about Jack Macpherson and his gang of surfers that hung out in a sewage pump house at Windansea Beach in La Jolla, California.

“The Electric Kool-Aid Test” (1968) an “I was there” anthology of late 60s Hippies, most notably Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, who traveled across the country promoting LSD in a colorfully painted school bus named “Further”. “The Right Stuff” (1979) told the “real” story of the antics of the (first) Mercury astronauts that made Chuck Yeager (sound barrier 1947) a household name.

But I think Wolf’s crowning glory was “Bonfire of the Vanities” (1987) followed by the film of the same name in 1990 starring Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis, directed by Brian DePalma. Bonfires is one of the deepest, blackest, most brutal comedies ever written, mercilessly trashing virtually all of our (90s) social mores including, marriage, mistresses, Wall Street, trust and compassion, political envy and manipulation, racial politics and most especially the judicial system.

“Bonfires” does not blink and has no peer in its viciousness. The film is a must-see and can usually be found on many of the TV streaming sites and always on the Torrents.

I think Wolfe can be directly compared to Hunter Thompson in his use of “enhanced description”. Thompson took it a step further by interjecting his own life into the lives of his subjects, usually in a bizarre way, usually termed “Gonzo Journalism”. At any rate, Tom died at age 88 at the end of a very fruitful and satisfying life. It was a good deal. God rest his soul.

See the film.

David Crippen, MD, FCCM
Professor Emeritus
University of Pittsburgh (Ret)

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