The Saturday Profile: Tom Wolfe, Writer - The acid-tester of our vanities

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The Independent Culture
FOR A while there, it seemed that Tom Wolfe had forsaken us. In 1987, he had treated us with his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities - a mercilessly hilarious romp across the Eighties New York landscape of Wall Street greed and racial paranoia - and then, poof, our white- suited, twinkle-eyed purveyor of wicked social observation was gone. Vanished. Had his racing reportorial juices dried up?

Even if the burden of topping Vanities was defeating him, could he not at least have returned to his non-fiction trade? Heaven knows there was material out there for him. Where was Wolfe, the man who gave us those brilliantly defining monickers such as "Masters of the Universe", "radical chic", "lemon tarts" and "social X-rays"? Where was his take on the Clarence Thomas hearings, for instance; on the Gulf War; on the Clintons, and the mid-Nineties consumption boom?

Now we have our answer. Wolfe, who divides his near-reclusive life between his apartment on the Upper East Side and a rented cottage in the Hamptons on Long Island, was toiling all along. Never mind now that it took 11 years; novel number two, A Man in Full, will finally be upon us on 10 November.

The early word on the book is mostly good. A Man in Full, a flurry of colliding plots all pivoting around the collapsed fortunes of an Atlanta property tycoon, will, of course, be seen as a sequel to Vanities. But, according to the New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, it is also a "big, if qualified, leap forward" for the author. With the Deep South as his setting, Wolfe has gone beyond near-caricature portraits, working to give his protagonists heart.

You can bet that A Man in Full will occupy the best-seller lists on both sides of the Atlantic for months, if not years. Wolfe's American hardback publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, has ordered a first print run of no fewer than 1.2 million copies, an astonishing number by any standards. It was nominated for the 1998 National Book Award in the US last month - even before its official publication. If Tom Wolfe's place in the pantheon of famous 20th-century novelists was not secure before, it surely will be now.

In all other regards, Wolfe defies category. To the frustration of the profile writer, he is an enigma as a person and a paradox as a writer. It is not just that he is a private man, not prone to public self-analysis, and certainly not tempted by the Manhattan whirl of gossip and partying. It is possible, says his agent of 30 years, Lynn Nesbit, that Wolfe has never even made it downtown. There is also this about Wolfe: while he may be our finest commentator on modern American society - hilariously pricking pretensions and hypocrisies and exposing phobias and vanities - he himself is strangely not of this era.

Nothing about him, in fact, could remotely be described as modern. There is, of course, his wardrobe. Whether winter or summer, any public appearance by Wolfe will find him in the ice-cream tones of his trademark white, three-piece suit, replete with hand-sewn leather shoes and puffed top- pocket handkerchief. He allegedly has 40 such suits and adores ordering new ones from his tailor, Vincent Nicolosi. If forced to list his favourite hobby, he will put down "window-shopping". His car is a Buick Roadmaster, a station wagon of such lumbering proportions that even Detroit has given up making them.

Ask friends of Wolfe about the eccentricity of his attire, his dandy image, and they tend to become a little defensive. "It's a kind of uniform," says Nesbit. "I think he is just saying, `Look, here I am and this is the way I've always been.'" Others suggest that the suits afford Wolfe the distance from his subject that a reporter needs. To interviewers, he invariably quotes Mark Twain. He apparently once intoned: "The last thing in the world I want to be is conspicuous, but I do want to be noticed."

The same friends will also remind you of Wolfe's heritage as a Southerner from an era in the South when manners and courtesy mattered. He was born, in fact, in 1931, in Richmond, Virginia. His father taught agronomy, edited a farming journal and owned a small farm beneath the Blue Ridge Mountains that the family would visit at weekends. Wolfe's grandfather was an officer for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Wolfe's devotion to his mother, now dead, was evident when he finished Vanities. By then she was nearly blind, so he spent two days reading the entire novel out loud to a tape- recorder so she could hear it.

Acquaintances of Wolfe invariably describe him as "delightful". In other words, that impeccable Dixie gentility is still with him. "You know how in New York, the people at a cocktail party are always looking over their shoulders? Tom doesn't do that," offers Nesbit. "If he's talking to you, he's focusing on you; he is never scanning the room to see who's more important or more interesting."

But Wolfe's detachment and his evident conservatism have contributed to another of his more surprising attributes - he has, over the years, harvested many enemies. In particular, he has not helped himself by determinedly detaching himself from his peers in American literature, effectively declaring himself to be superior to them. Most famously in an article written for Harpers magazine in 1989, while on the crest of his success with Vanities, he has repeatedly rehearsed the view that contemporary novelists have abandoned realism in their writing in favour of internal abstraction. He accuses them, in other words, of jettisoning their notebooks. He likens himself to the representational writers of the 19th century such as Balzac, Zola and Dickens. By all accounts, they are also the writers he prefers to read.

The Harpers piece, entitled "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast", carried the subtitle: "A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel." In it, he asserted that if the American novel was to survive, it would have to return to "a highly detailed realism based on reporting". In other words, more novelists should write as he did in Vanities. While this burst of self-satisfaction was hardly attractive, there is one thing you cannot take away from Wolfe - reporting is what he has always done.

Wolfe began his journalistic career at the Springfield Union newspaper in Massachusetts in 1962. Soon, he found himself at the since-closed New York Herald Tribune, where he recalled having a "feeling of amazed Bohemian bliss". His legend as a reporter, however, begins with a freelance assignment for Esquire magazine and the editor Byron Dobell. Dobell had sent him, at great expense, to southern California to write about young kids and their passion for customised hot-rod cars. Wolfe, however, suffered a block and could not deliver the piece on deadline. Dobell told him to file his notes anyway, so that a formal article could be fashioned at head office. But so struck was Dobell by the free-form power of the memo he received from Wolfe next day, he lopped off the "Dear Byron" and ran them almost verbatim.

So began the school of New Journalism of which Wolfe became the leading champion, even though he has since insisted that others, such as Jimmy Breslin and Gay Talese, had got there before him. It was a kind of loose, lunatic form of reportage that borrowed heavily from the world of fiction, and indeed occasionally erred right into it. And Wolfe stuck with the style through his subsequent non-fiction books. From the hot-rod assignment sprang his first book The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), a collection of essays, followed by The Pump House Gang and, in 1968, his still-famous depiction of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It was a writing streak that took him right through to his 1979 treatment of John Glenn - back in space as you read this - and his colleagues on the Mercury space programme in The Right Stuff and, eventually, to his career as a novelist.

Enemies were also made along the way because of the people Wolfe skewered. There was mortification in the Gotham magazine world when in 1965, Wolfe produced a send-up of the venerable New Yorker editor, William Shawn, in an article for the New York magazine called "Little Mummies". After ridiculing Manhattan limousine liberals who supported the Black Panthers, in "Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers" (1970), he was harangued by one critic as a "blatant, lying, racist dog". Cries of racism also went up with Vanities, some lambasting him for his admittedly shallow characterisation of Bronx black youth and their walking style, famously described as the "pimp roll".

The assaults resumed last year with the release of Ambush at Fort Bragg, a novella born of a fragment discarded from A Man in Full. It came out in audio-book form only, and told the story of ethically-challenged television producers pursuing three enlisted soldiers suspected of being behind the death of a gay soldier. The vivid articulation by one of the three, Virgil Ziggefoos, of the reasons why gays should be excluded from the military, earned damnation from the Times Literary Supplement in London. It called the novella "undeclared rightist bile", suggesting that it sent the message that: "if unconfessed homosexuality in the ranks is a betrayal of one's comrades, then to kick a man until he dies is OK."

Jann Wenner, whose magazine, Rolling Stone, serialised Vanities before its release as a full book, and who is a long-time Wolfe buddy, calls such criticism insane. "That was just a ridiculous fantasy of some reviewer trying to see something that was not there," he says. "Tom may be personally very conservative in his approach to living, but only in a very classic sense, not a political sense."

Doubtless, more controversy will come with A Man in Full, which again explores the fault-lines of racism. For that, Atlanta is the perfect setting. Wolfe, who suffered a mild heart attack in August 1996 before undergoing bypass surgery, in fact shifted the book from New York to Atlanta on Wenner's advice when almost half of it was already written. That way, he found he could escape the trap of writing a book too similar to Vanities.

But so, too, will it remind Wolfe's fans - who number in their millions - why they have yearned for his new book for so long. Among those looking forward to opening its cover is Byron Dobell, the Esquire editor who set Wolfe on his New Journalism course. "There is this about Tom. He does a lot of reporting and a lot of observing. He has this unique gift of language that sets him apart as Tom Wolfe. It is full of hyperbole; it is brilliant; it is funny, and he has a wonderful ear for how people look and feel." Dobell adds: "He has a gift of fluency that pours out of him in the way Balzac had it." And with that, Wolfe would have no argument.

Life Story

Born: 2 March 1931, in Richmond, Virginia.

Influences: Father, an agricultural scientist, whose death in 1972 hit him particularly hard; and his mother, who encouraged him to write and read.

Education: Washington and Lee University, and a five-year doctorate in American studies at Yale.

Married: Sheila Berger, an art director. A daughter, Alexandra 18, and a son, Tom, 13.

Career: Reporter for Springfield Union, Washington Post, New York Herald Tribune, New York World Journal Tribune; contributing editor, New York magazine, Harper's, Esquire.

Favourite authors: Dickens and Zola.

Favourite clothes: Suits from Vincent Nicolosi, shoes from Lobb of St James'.

Norman Mailer on Wolfe: "There's something silly about a man who wears a white suit all the time, especially in New York."

Wolfe on Mailer: "The lead dog is the one the other dogs always try to bite in the ass."

Mailer back on Wolfe: "While it is true that other dogs will always try to bite the lead hound in the butt, it doesn't mean you are top dog just because your ass is bleeding."