May 27, 2018, 3:55 am
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‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ author Tom Wolfe dead at 88

By BILL TROTT

Tom Wolfe, an early practitioner of “new journalism” who captured the mood and culture of America across five decades with books including “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” “The Right Stuff,” and “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” has died at the age of 88, his agent said.

Wolfe, who had a knack for coining phrases such as “radical chic” and “the me decade,” died on Monday of an unspecified infection in a New York City hospital, his agent, Lynn Nesbit, said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

Wolfe’s works – fiction and non-fiction alike – looked at realms ranging from the art world to Wall Street to 1960s hippie culture and touched on the issues of class, power, race, corruption and sex.

“I think every living moment of a human being’s life, unless the person is starving or in immediate danger of death in some other way, is controlled by a concern for status,” Wolfe said in a Wall Street Journal interview.

Wolfe came up with “radical chic” to brand pretentious liberals, the “me decade” to sum up the self-indulgence of the 1970s and the “right stuff” to quantify intangible characteristics of the first US astronauts and their test pilot predecessors.

He was never deterred by the fact that he often did not fit in with his research subjects, partly because he was such a sartorial dandy, known for his white suits.

Wolfe was in his mid-70s while hanging out with college kids and working on the novel “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” and was a fairly conservative drug-free observer in a coat and tie while traveling with Ken Kesey and his LSD-dropping hippie tribe known as The Merry Pranksters for “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” in the ‘60s. By looking so out of place, he figured people would be more prone to explain things to him.

‘New Journalism’

Wolfe started his writing career at the Springfield, Massachusetts, Union newspaper and also worked for the Washington Post, New York Herald-Tribune and New York magazine.

He was present at the birth of what was known as “new journalism,” a loose style that featured lots of dialog and detail and allowed reporters to narrate and develop characters in a way more often associated with fiction.

One of the genre’s defining moments came when Wolfe was having trouble meeting a deadline for a 1964 magazine story on the hot-rod car culture. In frustration, he sent his editor a letter with his thoughts and reportage. The magazine ran it verbatim as “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.”

That led to a compilation of Wolfe’s magazine pieces, followed by “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” which captured the spirit of the psychedelic era during his time with Kesey, author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and his band of pranksters who helped spread the popularity of LSD in California. Written in a wild free-association style that disregarded rules of punctuation, it was filled with sentence fragments and used words like “skakkkkkkkkkkkkkk” and “wowwwwwww.”

Wolfe’s style was not for everyone. “The question is not only whether Tom Wolfe can be taken seriously but whether he can be taken at all,” a Time magazine critic wrote in 1968. “He is irritating, but he did develop a new journalistic idiom that has brought relief from standard Middle-High Journalese.” – Reuters
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