Tom Wolfe: America's all-seeing eye

He has dazzled, and he has disappointed. Will his new novel put him back on top of the literary pedestal?

John Walsh
Sunday 16 September 2012 13:53 BST
Tom Wolfe has dazzled, and he has disappointed. Will his new novel put him back on top of the literary pedestal?
Tom Wolfe has dazzled, and he has disappointed. Will his new novel put him back on top of the literary pedestal? (Rex Features)

Having braced itself this summer for Hurricane Isaac to wreak devastation in its streets, Miami is braced, this autumn, for stormy weather from another force of nature: a slim, fox-faced, professorial octogenarian dressed in a white three-piece suit, white tie, white homburg and black-and-white spats. Tom Wolfe, America's most reliably controversial novelist/reporter, is back.

Next month sees the publication of Back to Blood, his first novel in eight years. And it threatens to do for Miami what The Bonfire of the Vanities did for New York in 1987 and A Man in Full did for Atlanta, Georgia, in 1998 – namely threaten to reveal the simmering racial tensions, political corruption and sexual and economic finagling to be found at every level of the sun-kiss'd Floridan metropolis. There will be trouble. There will be raucous discussion. There will be blood.

Details of the plot are sketchy but the book's 790 pages will encompass, say Wolfe's publishers, "class, family, wealth, race, crime, sex, corruption and ambition in Miami, the city where America's future has arrived first". Immigration is its main subject – not surprising in a city whose huge Cuban/Hispanic population dominates the political and cultural life and the language, while the black population languishes at the bottom of the pile – and Wolfe's beady eye will turn on the playground where the super-rich, with their yachts, Ferraris and surgically enhanced girlfriends on Ocean Drive, are watched with interest by a rackingly poor underclass.

These contrasts are meat and drink to Wolfe, whose The Bonfire of the Vanities had a rich Manhattan investment banker's life fall apart after he takes a wrong turn and finds himself in the Bronx. But the race issue has recently taken on a new urgency: a black president is forced to "prove" his Americanness to sceptical Republicans; a Hispanic man shoots an unarmed black teenager; suburbanites live in fear of Muslim infiltration. "Two years ago, when I got the idea of doing a book on immigration," said Wolfe, "people would say, 'Oh that's fascinating' then go to sleep standing up like a horse. Since then the subject has become a little more exciting, and in Miami it's not only exciting, it's red hot."

Back to Blood is, as they say, eagerly awaited because his last was considered a disappointment. I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004) told what seemed to be an old-fashioned morality tale about a sheltered Christian virgin from North Carolina who goes to sexy, boozy, jock-tastic Dupont University and there learns to dissemble, to pretend, to seem – and to lose her innocence. The book features a disturbing scene of deflowering, which won that year's Bad Sex Award. American critics disliked the novel, complaining that American campus sex just wasn't like that – and anyway, what was a 73-year-old man doing trying to get inside the mind of an 18-year-old virgin in the first place?

Charlotte Simmons deployed a huge cast, many of them marginal to the plot. He always deals with divisions, rather than platoons, of characters. All his books open with crowd scenes: a riot at a political meeting, a street festival, a university party. He has a fetish for size: the bigger the canvas, the better; the richer the protagonist, the greater the target. Hugeness and its relation to the American soul drives A Man in Full. It concerns Charlie Croker, a property mogul in Atlanta, Georgia, who basks in phenomenal wealth, runs a 29,000-acre quail plantation and lies awake at 3am worrying about his half-billion-dollar debt. The book offers 700 pages of extremes: big acres, big shoulders, big hi-fi speakers, big breasts, big factories, big weights, even big snakes.

"Everything in this book began with my discovery of the plantations," Wolfe told me in 1999. "Before that, I thought the final extreme of conspicuous consumption was owning your own jet. But when I started hanging out with plantation owners, and learning about their extreme wealth, I knew it had to be the core of the book. And I discovered that you don't become a plantation baron by having money. You have to be 'man enough' for the job." Croker is contrasted in the novel by an idealistic blue-collar worker called Conrad who is laid off from Croker's meat plant, falls through the legal system but ends up in jail. A good man – but is he or Charlie the "man in full"?

There's something Dickensian about Wolfe's moral cruxes of the book, and among his first experiments with writing were brief character studies along the lines of Sketches by Boz. He also admires Zola and Balzac, and their multi-volume anatomisings of French society from top to bottom. He does the same. "Wolfe may live in a fancy block-long apartment on the Upper East Side, but he clearly does not stay indoors," remarked New York magazine. "He walks his white suit into the dark corners of American social, sexual, and criminal life and returns with an intuitive, empirical, and arresting grasp of his fellow citizens."

Not everyone has been so impressed. Some of Wolfe's fellow authors wrote off his approach as merely well-researched journalism. John Updike called A Man in Full "entertainment not literature", Norman Mailer reviewed it with condescension. Wolfe retaliated with asperity, calling the two literary titans "washed-up windbags". He defended the novelist's right to deal in the everyday. "It's important for the novelist to bring alive what Hegel called the zeitgeist," he told me. "He thought every era had its own moral tone, that presses down on everyone living at the time."

A favourite line of Wolfe's is: "You never realise how much of your background is sewn into the lining of your clothes." His distinctive white suits (by an Italian-American called Vincent Nicolosi) certainly recall the dandyism of the Deep South. But the attitudes and perspectives of his writing also hark back to his childhood.

He was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1931, when the Depression was in full swing. Wolfe said later that he wasn't conscious of the Depression when young, except when a tramp came to the family's front door and Tom's mother would give him a sandwich. His father, Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, was an agricultural scientist who helped to start a farmers' co-operative. Thomas Snr edited a farm magazine called The Southern Planter, and the young Tom was entranced to watch him scribbling, on yellow legal pads, advice on crop rotation that would come out in pristine type two weeks later.

Wolfe proudly asserts that six generations of his ancestors held graduate degrees. He himself shone at the local school (baseball star, editor of the school newspaper, president of the student council) and, at Washington and Lee University, came under the spell of Marshall Fishwick, a Yale-educated teacher of American studies. Fishwick taught his students to inspect whole cultures, including the lower orders, with an anthropologist's eye. A journalist was born – one who liked to play the part of the respectful Southern outsider, fetched up among the grotesques of modern America, watching them closely.

His first significant work, for Esquire, dealt in popular culture, politics and architecture. A piece on Californian hot-rod cars entitled "There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" ushered in what became known as the "New Journalism", in which fictional techniques, fizzing with unpunctuated lists, riffy repetitions and exclamation marks, invaded the calm meadows of 1960s reportage. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test followed Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in their LSD-fuelled journeys across America. Radical Chic (1970) skewered bien-pensant liberalism in its evocation of a party given by Leonard Bernstein to raise money for the Black Panthers.

Between these satirical attacks and his rapturous encomium to American astronauts in The Right Stuff (1979), it seemed simple in the 1980s to write off Wolfe as a leftie-hating conservative with a fancy prose style and a good tailor. But he's never been easy to pin down politically. And his spectacular career as a novelist revealed his real strengths.

He's very much the son of the democratically minded agronomist whose journalism offered good advice to his farming brethren; very much the kid who grew up in segregated Virginia and understands how racism can become normalised; very much the cool and precise young notator of other people's obsessions with size, money and tyranny. He's a writer who's endlessly, and fruitfully, fascinated by the shiny surface of American life and what it persuades its citizens to become. And if he seems sometimes to glory in fighting his peers (he called John Irving, Updike and Vidal "My three stooges") – well, he's a man who's always been keen on spats.

A Life In Brief

Born: Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jnr 2 March 1931, Richmond, Virginia.

Family: His mother was a landscape designer and his father an agronomist. Married, with two children.

Education: Studied at Washington and Lee University and Yale.

Career: Began as a reporter working for The Washington Post and New York Herald Tribune. Became a pioneer of the New Journalism in books such as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. His first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, appeared in 1987.

He says: "To me, the great joy of writing is discovering. I still love the adventure of going out and reporting on things I don't know about."

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

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