Tom Wolfe forged a place in our collective consciousness for car enthusiasts, hippies, pilots, surfers, strippers and the monied elite, and helped make those who were exotic or “different” worthy of a new consideration
So much has been written about Tom Wolfe in the last few days–about his inventive turns of phrase; his investigative approach; his literary awards; his unique look; his work habits. What truly sets Wolfe apart is his appreciation for the lives he described–regardless of who or what they seemed to be to others. Wolfe consistently made the somewhat unusual, the unreachably exotic and the flat-out “different” worthy of a new consideration–creating a place in our collective consciousness for car enthusiasts, hippies, pilots, surfers, strippers and the monied elite. In doing so, Wolfe encouraged us be comfortable with their desire for individuality while we made them heroes, or villains, in the manner he portrayed them.
The passing of Tom Wolfe brings the word “genius” to mind for many, with fellow writers, long-time readers and the culturally attune all describing Wolfe’s talents and intellect in ways that would make even Bob Dylan and Henri Balzac blush.
Genius is a word deriving from an ancient pre-Indo European root, meaning to “beget”, “produce”. In that measure, Wolfe certainly stands tall, having created works of literature inspiring discussion across every societal collective, and bringing catchphrases into everyday language–The Right Stuff, Good Ol’ Boy, to name two–that no one remembers being without.
A genius is also a guiding spirit of a family or place. In that measure, Wolfe again stands tall, both as a steady father to his two children, and as the writer who his peers and subsequent generations looked to in order to best understand what is happening across the American scene.
A more fitting measure of Wolfe’s legacy, though, is a more obscure definition of genius—“a person whose soul is struck by the feelings of others; interested by all that is in nature, never to receive an idea unless it evokes a feeling; everything excites him and on which nothing is lost.”
Nothing was lost on Tom Wolfe; his prose constantly reads of detail and excitement.
Consider his mid-paragraph description of the then up-and-coming boxer Cassius Clay walking out of a Manhattan hotel (in Esquire, October 1963): “Cassius, six feet three, two hundred pounds, was wearing a black-and-white-checked jacket, white tab-collared shirt and black tie, light grey Continental trousers, black pointed-toe Italian shoes, and walking with a very cocky walk. The girls were walking one or two steps behind, all five of them, dressed in slayingly high couture. There were high heels and garden-party hats.” Read that and you’re in the scene; you want to know where they’re going and what they’re going to do next. History will tell us Cassius Clay became Muhammed Ali and redrew cultural norms; Wolfe put us in his entourage and made us feel a part of the change.
Wolfe did the same with each subculture and personality he portrayed (and if you want to know who all those individuals and groups were, read his New York Times obituary). In his 1968 The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe combines bits of conversation with on-the-scene logistical detail, amid a flurry of dashes, staggered lines and ellipses, to convey the fast-paced excitement, in-the-middle-of-it-all experience and the each-moment-is-new eureka that were the hallmarks of the “on-the-bus”, psychedelic San Francisco scene.
It was a world that, as Wolfe recounts: “well, to be frank, I didn’t know what in the hell it was all about,” with the story unfolding (both for him and his reader) through the experiences of Ken Kesey, The Merry Pranksters and the other non-conformists, edge-of-consciousness-pursuers the Acid Test scene attracted–with Wolfe realizing at the outset, through Kesey, that he was about to get a look at “things going on out here that you would never guess in your wildest million years.”
Asked for his thoughts on Wolfe, The New Yorker writer Nick Paumgarten wrote Tuesday, “To me the enduring quality in the work, and I mean primarily the Sixties stuff, is the reporting, the endless hours and weeks spent as the dork with the notebook. It was a feat of endurance and attention, all in the service of telling his fellow squares what they were missing and a generation of aspiring non-squares what to keep an eye out for.”
Few seem to realize Wolfe was not on the 1964 bus trip that makes up much of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; he came to Kesey’s scene in 1966 (and says so at the beginning of the book). The “trip” Wolfe chronicled was created from interviews and research–in much the same way he recounted the drive of the American servicemen who participated in NASA’s Project Mercury in 1979’s The Right Stuff. In the case of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe made use of notes provided by his friend Hunter S. Thompson (from Thompson’s 1966 Hell’s Angels), and screened hours of film the Pranksters had amassed from their cross-country adventure and their on-going Acid Tests.
There are few writers who would have ever had the patience to watch such “nonsense”, and then again there are few who would ever be able to suspend the judgment of their subject in the way Wolfe did. He saw Kesey’s crew for who they were–irrepressible artists and social adventurers–and he let them be who they were, without comparing them to what was familiar in his own life. Wolfe threw out his own East Coast cultural filters, and found the spark of life in those characters and in their way of being–a reality completely distinct from any then-known mainstream. True to form, Wolfe did it all in his trademark white suit. Imagine that, Wolfe being surrounded by psychedelia in all forms–and getting it–while being distinct in, and apart from, the scene, secure in his own way of being. He was there to witness, note and, ultimately, tell the tale of why these “freaks” were important.
That celebration of the individual–that acknowledging of each character’s power, creativity and passions–that is the genius of Tom Wolfe. Yes, he worked tirelessly, like a reporter, to find the elements to make the story and its moments great, but he wanted and delivered more than that: Wolfe made “his people” memorable and worthy of further consideration–providing readers the experience of being there, in-the-scene, on-the-go, in-the-know, rapt with the feeling of what is happening.
In describing Wolfe’s impact on his work on Wednesday, screenwriter Bill Collage wrote, “He was my writing hero, and still is, despite his physical form not being with us any more. While A Man In Full remains, to me anyhow, a masterpiece of character, theme and style, and a prescient look at ‘The New South’ that only now has come into focus (20 years after its publication), it was Wolfe’s Hooking Up which awakened me to the responsibility of a screenwriter. While taking Irving, Updike and Mailer to task and discussing the death of the indulgent, author-driven novel, he bequeathed the mantle of New Journalism (a term he hated) to filmmakers and screenwriters: ‘reporters’ whose natural curiosity about subjects lead them to discover stories. Wolfe taught me stories are everywhere and people want to tell them…Listen, young man! Stop talking about yourself and your boring life as a writer and HEAR the world! HEAR our history! And dammit, type it up!”
A Chance Encounter at Tom’s House
My wife, Aura Winarick, has been a private chef to Tom and Sheila Wolfe for almost 20 years. A Thanksgiving or so ago, we went to bring some side dishes to the Wolfes as part of their holiday feast.
Aura was telling Sheila that her father, Gut Terk, was surprised that after so many years that people were still interested in his escapades as a biker and artist–he didn’t find himself all that remarkable and was just glad to be living; Gut, much like Tom, found other people “cool”.
Aura had never told Sheila her father was in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but I opened my mouth and told the tale. I also insisted to Aura and Sheila how Tom had portrayed these rambunctious back-of-the-classroom, off-to-the-war, ride-motorcycle types, and made them heroically cool–able to say, “fuck you” to “normal” and mean it–they never apologized, they never conformed and they never seemed to question what was important to them. Sheila was drawn into the Gut story and its connection to Tom’s work, so she went off to see if Tom would come down.
Soon he appeared, an elderly, bright-eyed gentleman (about 86) in full Tom-Wolfe-attire: whitish-light cream suit, blue shirt buttoned high to his neck and loafers, all on an at-home Southampton afternoon. As courteous and polite as he could be, his eyes lit up to know Aura had reconnected with her dad, but seemed to glaze over when the connection to The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test came up. The glaze was not the “oh-you’re-from-the-sixties” look James Earl Jones gave Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams; it was more a “hey-I’m-upstairs-slaying-new-dragons-don’t-make-me-look-for-the-old-ones-right-now” look. The moment passed, as did the conversation, and excited holiday niceties were exchanged.
Sheila and Aura stay in touch regularly and it was when I asked to interview Tom for Please Kill Me that we discovered Tom was sick. Sheila wrote back last week that she’d schedule a time to talk when he was better. That time never came.