(May 16, 2018) Tom Wolfe, who died earlier this week of pneumonia at age 88, rose to fame in the 1960s by blending extravagantly detailed reporting with the storytelling techniques of fiction as a pioneer of New Journalism. It is the style-model for my latest book, The Devil’s Town: Hot Springs During the Gangster Era, which I implied by quoting Wolfe on the flyleaf: “The trouble with fiction is that the story has to be plausible. That’s not true with nonfiction.” Mr. Wolfe’s life itself could be Exhibit One among the evidence that might be compiled to validate his quote.
[To Support this website buy my books at My Amazon Author Page]
Tom Wolfe was a Virginian who earned an English degree from Washington & Lee College in the 1950s, when the school’s graduates were as proud of Lee as they were of Washington. He later earned a PhD from Yale in American Studies. After sending out one-hundred job query letters he received only one offer, which he took with a daily newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts. Within six years he was in New York and building a reputation for insightful reporting and storytelling.
He was a provocateur and deflater of reputations that were built on film-flam. In Radical Chic, he skewered the limousine liberals at Leonard Bernstein’s cocktail party fundraiser for the Black Panthers. Wolfe’s exceptional talent was that his ability went beyond exposing the hypocrisy of political-correctness. He was able to make it look ridiculous because he was a participant, rather than merely an observer, to the follies around him. He was, for example, a guest at Bernstein’s fund raiser.
His Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test remains the best book about hippies, and this is so because he accompanied Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters on their LSD-laden bus tour of America. The Wall Street Journal insightfully notes that The Right Stuff Wolfe portrays America’s first seven astronauts as “flawed strivers rather than idealized heroes.” In his first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, he criticizes aspects of American culture but unlike other critics he stops short of attacking America itself. Although published thirty-one years ago when it was politically-incorrect to depict even a minor black character as a racial demagogue, the novel’s fraudulent Reverend Reginald Bacon is a dead ringer for Al Sharpton. And yet perhaps the novel’s evilest character is a white Southerner who is the protagonist’s mistress and actually the person responsible for the criminal hit-and-run auto accident. But she is not held accountable because she is protected by female gender privilege—another true but politically-incorrect concept.
In short, any novel that had a nattily-dressed Southerner and W & L graduate transplanted to New York where he became celebrated for decades as one of America’s best writers would be too implausible to be accepted by a publisher. And that is why Wolfe’s story underscores his point that a fictional story must be plausible whereas a true one sometimes isn’t.