Whatever happened to Tom Wolfe?

His first fiction for 10 years since 'Bonfire of the Vanities' will be sold only on tape - and not at all in Britain. David Usborne explains

The corner-page advertisement in last Monday's New Yorker magazine set bells trilling all around literary-land. The same spot appeared in the next day's main newspapers. It proclaimed: "You've waited so long for Tom Wolfe."

Indeed, we gasp. The drought since his last work - and first novel - The Bonfire of the Vanities, has lasted 10 years. Beside a freshly-photographed portrait of Wolfe, familiarly rakish in his patent white suit and hat, were the teasers: "SKINHEADS. MEDIAGENIC HUCKSTERS. PATRIOTS AND SCOUNDRELS".

But then, from excitement to puzzlement. It was not just that Wolfe was looking, well, old. This was not for a book at all. Or least not a print book. Instead, we were being offered a new novella, Ambush at Fort Bragg, on audio tape. There it was, clear as day: "Not available in book format."

Pardon? Since when had new works by world-status names, such as Wolfe, author also of The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test among other works loosely defined as non-fiction, been consigned directly to the audio market? Since never, as it happens. It is unprecedented.

Could it be that Wolfe, the self-proclaimed creator of New Journalism, had gone off? Had his publisher taken a leaf from Hollywood, where dud films are denied big-screen time and shipped straight to the video chains?

Fear not. Fans still savouring the moment Sherman McCoy, the socialite protagonist of Vanities, doomed himself by taking a wrong off-ramp from a New York expressway into the blight of the South Bronx, can relax. The genius of Wolfe, now 66, is undiminished. But not so, apparently, either his own health or that of his bank balance.

There is a much more significant, full novel on the way; sequestered for the summer in his Hamptons home on Long Island, Wolfe should finish it next month. Ambush, it emerges, is an off-cut from that work - a segment first conceived as a preface to it but then discarded as being too at odds with the rest of the work. Wolfe could have junked it, but decided, instead, to make use of it.

The reason, according to one close associate, was financial. The researching and writing of the new book has taken much longer than expected. Wolfe has a reputation for perfectionism and last-minute tinkering, but in part he was derailed by a mild - and little-publicised - heart attack he suffered last August. While open-heart surgery in New York nine months ago has since returned him to good health, the episode set him back considerably.

Wolfe first turned to his friend Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone magazine, which had carried both The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff, an examination of American space heroes, in pre-publication serialisations. Wenner ran Ambush in two successive issues last December. Thereafter came the decision to give it to Wolfe's longtime paperback publisher, Bantam Doubleday Dell, for release last week as an audio book.

"I suppose that rather than deciding to put this [Ambush] in a bottom drawer somewhere, he realised that it could make him some money, that he could legitimately turn it into something that could make some dough," said the friend, who asked to remain anonymous. "You have to realise that recently, Tom has been doing very little that has been making him any money."

In the years after Bonfire, Wolfe commanded $20,000 a go for lectures. But the writer, who has frequently decried the paucity of reporting in the modern novel, has in recent years eschewed the talk circuit and concentrated on researching and penning his so far untitled new book.

While the advance for that book from his hardback publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, reportedly topped $2m (pounds 1.3m), no one is saying how much Ambush has earned him. Exceptional, however, is the $150,000 promotional budget given it by Bantam. Audio books - normally abridged versions of works already in print - generally never get more than $30,000 for advertising.

"It was always understood that the compensation was not as important in the deal as the commitment we made to spend a certain amount of money promoting the audio book," Jenny Frost, president and publisher of Bantam audio, said last week. "But then he is one of this century's most famous contemporary authors and, yes, he is being well compensated."

Ambush is about three soldiers at Fort Bragg who are entrapped by the hidden cameras of a network news magazine show investigating the murder of a soldier who was gay. Utterly Wolfeian, it is a rollicking, wittily observed piece that above all skewers the TV journalism fraternity and its propensity to package and edit what they film to fit a pre-determined political agenda.

But it is not a tape you would want to play in the car with children in the back. Even Wolfe, in a conversation with his New York agent, Lynne Nesbit, last week, confessed to being a bit taken aback by the graphic immediacy of some the language uttered by the three soldiers when it was on tape rather than the page. Torrents of swearwords, as well as passages where they snarlingly describe acts of gay sex that they abhor, were suddenly much more shocking, even to the author. Any notion, however, that the piece, narrated by Ed Norton of Primal Fear and other films, is in any way a dud will not wash.

"I would deny that a million times," explodes Bob Love, the features editor at Rolling Stone who confesses to "staying up nights" last year to help Wolfe meet the deadline for publication in the magazine. "I can't imagine why anyone would not print it. It's f---ing hilarious. It's kick-ass stuff."

So why is Ambush being withheld from the print market? That, apparently, was a strategy mutually agreed upon by Wolfe himself, Nesbit and Roger Straus, at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All three concluded that putting Ambush into print now would have deadened the impact of the grand arrival, probably next spring, of the bigger work that it was chipped from.

"We agreed that to put this out in print before the main work would have been a mug's game," said Straus last week. "Ambush is great, but it is a minor compared to a major." Added Nesbit: "People would have been confused. They'd have said, 'Why are you giving us this rather than the new novel?'"

Earlier tentative titles, both dropped, have included Mayfly and Chocolate City. Wolfe's targets this time are property development and financial tycoons in Atlanta, Georgia. First drafts of the book included long sections set in New York. These were shelved by Wolfe, however, who is anxious that no one should label the novel a reworking of Vanities.

Straus, who has read various drafts, is breathlessly - and perhaps predictably - excited about the book. "It is in the same tradition as The Bonfire of the Vanities. It will be about the same size and the same examination of the times and the people of the times and, specifically, of a group of people in Atlanta."

The much tinier, but nonetheless wonderful, Ambush, in the meantime, amounts to a clever marketing come-on for the novel that is still to come. Oddly, a printed version has been produced for Spain, France and Brazil (the translation apparently renders it from very slim to almost book-thick for those markets). The sad news is that Bantam has no plans to sell Ambush in Britain, in either spoken or printed form.

The real thing - the son of Bonfire - is not far behind it, however.

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