Profile: Tom Wolfe: The white suit finds a heart

'The Bonfire of the Vanities' defined the Eighties. Now its author has something else for us to chew on. By James Delingpole

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A MAN IN FULL. Just doesn't have quite the same ring, does it, as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby or The Bonfire of the Vanities? But that's the title Tom Wolfe has chosen for his latest novel - to be published in the US next month - so we'd better get used to it. And, hey, it could have been worse. He was originally going to call it "The Mayflies". Or "Turpentine" (!)

A Man in Full. It sounds flat and uninspired now, but it won't do for long. Pretty soon it'll be the phrase on everyone's lips - everyone who reads anyway. Sub-editors will work it into headlines, profile writers into profiles; just like they did with all those other handy, snappy, catch-all tags that Wolfe is supposed to have invented: Radical Chic, The Me Generation, The Painted Word, The Masters of The Universe ... (Didn't the children's cartoon series He-Man and the Masters Of the Universe exist before Wolfe coined that phrase?)

A Man in Full. Poor journalistic form that, using the same opening phrase three paragraphs in a row. Or at least it might have been before Tom Wolfe came along. He changed all that. In 1963 (the same year, according to Larkin, that sex was invented) Wolfe wrote for Esquire magazine the article on customised hot-rod cars that would later come to be accepted as the first example of the "New Journalism".

According to legend, it all came about as a result of writer's block. Wolfe couldn't find a way to write the piece, so his editor Byron Dobell suggested he submit it in note form. Which Wolfe did - 49 frantic pages worth, dashed off in an evening - and submitted as a letter beginning "Dear Byron". Dobell removed the "Dear Byron" and ran the rest of it almost verbatim under the heading "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby". The style was loose, conversational, digressive, jokey; the punctuation and structure mannered and eccentric. Its legacy can be detected in almost every newspaper and magazine feature article published since. We are all New Journalists now.

Of course, the style sometimes outstays its welcome. It can grow pretentious, arch, laboured, distracting, pointlessly experimental. The bits of free poetry that open some of the chapters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, for example: they're pretty annoying; they haven't stood the test of time. But then pretty much everything else in the book has. It's still the best thing that anyone has ever written about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters; it might even be the best piece of journalism on the whole hippie era.

Similar rules apply to the demolition jobs Wolfe did on modern art (The Painted Word), modern architecture (From Bauhaus to Our House) and the ultra-liberal New Yorkers who supported the Black Panthers (Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers). And to his paean to the test pilots on America's nascent astronaut programme (The Right Stuff). They're all incisive, frighteningly well researched and horribly readable. They provide definitive snapshots of the spirit of the times. The - and here's a word you'll find in every piece ever written on Wolfe - zeitgeist.

Which, inevitably, was the quality that most impressed everyone when Wolfe first turned his hand to fiction in the Eighties. In 1987 The Bonfire of the Vanities became The Novel Of The Decade. It had high-powered city brokers coming a cropper; it had race politics and angry black kids loping along with a "pimp roll"; and ultra-thin society grandes dames - the "social x-rays". It wasn't just about the Eighties. It was the Eighties.

But where was Wolfe when we needed him to tell us about the Nineties? Where was his definitive text on global warming, the information superhighway, the Gulf war, political correctness? For a long time it seemed as if we weren't going to get one. He has always been a slow worker - The Right Stuff took him seven years to write, The Bonfire of the Vanities six - but even by these standards his next book, whatever it might be, appeared to be progressing more slowly than a snail on Valium. Had the master lost his touch?

As it turned out, the first words on A Man in Full have been good. Very good. Already it is being hailed as his fictive masterpiece, a gripping, plotted, richly complex epic set in and around Atlanta, Georgia, as sweeping in scope and sharply observed as Bonfire, but with much more heart. Some have ascribed this change of attitude to the effects of his cardiac arrest two years ago. Certainly, before then, engaging sympathy was something Wolfe was accused of lacking. However neatly drawn Sherman McCoy and the rest of the Bonfire cast might have been, you never truly cared what became of them. Not so, apparently with his latest dramatis personae - among them, loathsome but compelling southern millionaire Charlie Croker, well-to-do black lawyer Roger White and struggling young family man Conrad Hensley. You're rooting for them all, especially the hapless Hensley, right to the end.

Not, it must be said, that the likely rapturous response is going to come as much of a surprise to the author, who has always been the world's biggest Tom Wolfe fan. You can see this in that celebrated Irving Penn portrait of 1966, in which Wolfe wears a smile that - as a recent Vanity Fair interview so aptly put it - conveys the message: "I am a superior being and something within my plane of vision is arousing feelings of detached amusement". You can also detect it from his response, later in the same interview, when asked whether he was not, in fact, immensely pleased with himself. "Well, if I do say so, yes," he replied.

To his detractors this cocksure attitude is deeply galling. Wolfe has made many enemies, ranging from the modern art and architecture establishments to those who, after Radical Chic, called him "a blatant, lying, racist dog". A Man in Full, which includes an unlikeable black alleged rapist, may do little to refute this charge: Wolfe counters that he is merely depicting life as it is.

More irksome yet was the piece he wrote for Harper's magazine two years after Bonfire. In it he argued that an entire generation of post-war American writers had disappeared into their own navels, and that the future of the novel now lay "in a highly detailed realism based on reporting". In other words, in the sort of novel written by journalistic geniuses like, er, Tom Wolfe. Quizzed recently on this issue, Wolfe confessed to knowing next to nothing about contemporary literature. His preferred reading comprises works by Balzac, Zola, Dickens and Maupassant. Nor, apparently, does he have much idea about many other forms of contemporary culture. He hardly ever watches TV and his notions of a realistic name for a rock band and hip-hop outfit are (as evinced by A Man in Full) Pus Casserole and Doctor Rammer Doc Doc.

But then almost everything about Wolfe's aggressively fogeyish demeanour seems calculated to annoy the modern world. There's the elegant, Gilded Age apartment he shares in New York with his wife, Sheila, and teenage children, Alexandra and Thomas; the aristocratic retreat in the Hamptons; the insistence on using a typewriter rather than a word processor; the antic Southern diction and perfect manners inherited from his upbringing in Richmond, Virginia. (His father was an agricultural scientist and gentleman farmer; one of his grandfathers fought for the Confederacy.)

And then, of course, there are those ridiculous white suits (a devil to cut according to his Italian tailor because you can scarcely see the chalk marks). When asked about this affectation, Wolfe usually quotes Mark Twain: "The last thing in the world I want to be is conspicuous, but I do want to be noticed." Which is true, no doubt, but surely not the whole story. Might they not also be worn as a form of distraction, a barrier to stop outsiders peering too deeply into the gentler character within?

As he has grown older and mellower, Wolfe has begun to let slip intimations that he might be rather more modest and self-effacing than the smug, polished and cynical dandy of popular legend. Recently he chose to debunk the most enduring myth of his career, the one about the genesis of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. It had nothing to do, he insisted, with writer's block or a letter to his editor. He simply recognised that the real inventors of the New Journalism, Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin, were on to a good thing and did his best to copy them.

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