HOW TOM WOLFE DOES IT

Notes on a Voice: the satirist with the white suit leaves moralising to others. Robert Butler itemises his dandy style

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012

Counter-bohemianism, he calls it: a combative edge, a conservative disposition, and a white suit, even in winter. Born in 1931, Tom Wolfe grew up in Richmond, Virginia, capital of the Confederacy, where his father, an agronomist, edited the Southern Planter. Wolfe's career has been spent in New York, but his origins shine out in his soft-spoken courtesy, acute social awareness and outsider temperament. The acrobatic prose of early books like "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" flicked two fingers at the sepia gentilities of mainstream New York journalism. After his bestselling study of astronauts, "The Right Stuff", he turned to fiction with "The Bonfire of the Vanities". Critics pick up on his gleeful satire, his use of the present tense, the virtuoso displays of punctuation and a Professor Higgins-like ear for dialect. But what's often overlooked is the theoretical basis of his work. He said of his breakthrough article about custom cars, "I had a lot of trouble analysing exactly what I had on my hands." His subject has been America since 1960, and the huge shift in social mores sparked by post-war prosperity. His day-glo crowd-pleasers draw authority from two sources: awesome feats of research, and a complex theory of status. He leaves moralising to others.

GOLDEN RULE Find things out, by "saturation reporting". He spent 11 years on "A Man in Full". All reporters, and he includes novelists, ought to bring home the bacon.

KEY DECISION Doing a PhD at Yale in American studies. He believes sociology is the queen of the sciences. Studying Max Weber gave Wolfe the analytical tools for hitting on new concepts and theories. Sociology's key themes—how individuality is constructed, how we draw our identity from others—coalesce around status. For Wolfe, this cuts across class and ethnicity setting up little leagues in every department from conceptual art ("The Painted Word") to student sex ("I Am Charlotte Simmons"). He examines myriad subcultures, from banking to basketball, and uncovers versions of charismatics, gatekeepers, grunts, hierophants, shitheads, sacred texts, totems, taboos, campfires, hierarchies, protocols, omertàs and unspoken rules. The journalist's notebook becomes "a beggar's cup", modern artists in Manhattan do an "apache dance" and ideas develop "liver spots". 

STRONG POINT Use of multiple points of view. It's one of four devices outlined in his introduction to "The New Journalism", along with scene-by-scene construction, realistic dialogue and details of status life. He feels that prose can take you inside someone's mind more vividly than the movies. The best way to bring out status conflict is to inhabit each character's ambitions and anxieties. Wolfe compares writing to method acting when he moves inside the central nervous system of his characters in "a controlled trance". 

FAVOURITE TRICK Nailing things: "the me decade", "statusphere", "the right stuff", "social x-ray", "radical chic", "masters of the universe".

ROLE MODELS (1) Balzac, Dickens, Thackeray and Zola, the masters of the big-city novel. Wolfe has written three, set in New York, Atlanta and now Miami. (2) The Russian experimental novelists of the 1920s, who showed him how to use punctuation to express stream of consciousness. Six colons in a row? No problem.

TYPICAL SENTENCE The opening lines of "The Painted Word", where reading the paper becomes an event: "Imagine being in New York City on the morning of Sunday, April 28, 1974... slipping into that great public bath, that vat, that spa, that regional physiotherapy tank, that White Sulphur Springs, that Marienbad, that Ganges, that River Jordan for a million souls, which is the Sunday New York Times."

Illustration Kathryn Rathke

Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life