Defining Tom Wolfe and Contextualizing The Bonfire of the Vanities:
A Critical Essay by Danielle Stubbe
Rarely do writers establish a voice so distinctive that their style renders them immediately recognizable to a reader through a paragraph—through perhaps even a sentence—of their writing. Readers may recognize quotations, passages, and themes, but for an author’s writing style to become in itself definitive of that author requires very rare, specific circumstances in both the author’s life and the culture to which he belongs. Journalist Tom Wolfe, whose reporting techniques fathered the New Journalism movement during the 1960s and 1970s, is one author whose distinctive voice is undeniable. He has developed, cultivated, and marketed that voice through his journalism, his longer non-fiction books, and even his more recent fiction novels, ultimately composing a “Tom Wolfe style” of writing belonging entirely to him. And, when traced through reviews and scholarship about Wolfe published over the last half-century, this contextualizes his success of his 1987 bestseller The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Tom Wolfe’s literary style is flamboyant. He simply embodies onomatopoeia. He exclaims, he exaggerates, and he emphasizes his words and quotations and phrases throughout both his non-fiction journalistic pieces and books and his fictional novels. His language is colloquial and bold. His sentences, overrun with punctuation from dashes to exclamation points and with styles from italics to full-word capitalization, even look interesting to the eye. Readers are meant, of course, to appreciate the depth of the research behind the material he writes, but also to enjoy the experience of reading that material. And critics—even established literary writers—recognized this as early as the publication of his first book The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), which included a number of his pieces of New Journalism from his early career. Says novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in his review of the book entitled “Infarcted! Tabescent!” from the New York Times Book Review, “Tom Wolfe is the most exciting—or, at least, the most jangling—journalist to appear in some time” (Vonnegut). Wolfe’s style, Vonnegut here explains, seems to “jangle” when one reads it. It is “exciting,” bold, new, and entirely unique to Wolfe. And for Vonnegut, “the temptation when reviewing his works, of course, is to imitate him cunningly. Holy animals! Sebaceous sleepers! Oxymorons and serpentae carminael! Tabescent! Infarcted! Stretchpants netherworld! Schlock! A parodist might get the words right, but never the bitchy melody” (Vonnegut). This phenomenon, the adoption or imitation of Wolfe’s writing style while reviewing his books, has continued throughout his career. In 2000, Esquire Magazine writer Sven Birkerts titled his review of Wolfe’s latest book Hooking Up “Tom Wolfe.(What?) Tom Wolfe.(Can’t Hear You.) Tom Wolfe!” (Birkerts). Essentially, these reviewers—their acknowledgement and playful adoption of Wolfe’s style indicative of the author’s treatment by many critics and fans—demonstrate the idiosyncratic nature of Wolfe’s writing. In other words, their imitation affirms, quite simply, that Wolfe’s style is distinctive.
Wolfe himself has also spoken, both in interviews throughout his career and in his own writing, about his distinctive style. In a 2006 interview with Frieze Magazine, the interviewer asked him explicitly about his style. “Throughout your own writings,” the question begins, “you have used language in a wholly new way—part stream of consciousness, part naturalism and part linguistic cartoon—almost a literary equivalent of Pop art. How did you acquire your distinctive prose style?” (Wolfe interview with Bracewell). Wolfe responds that, while writing his first magazine features piece, one on customized automobiles for Esquire eventually entitled “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” (1963), his editor instructed him to submit his notes so that another writer could turn them into an article. So, he wrote the notes in his natural, flamboyant way, expecting them to transformed into a conventional article. But Esquire chose to run his notes verbatim. “Now that really did show me that you could cut loose!” (Wolfe interview with Bracewell), Wolfe reflects in the interview; “I was reasonably creative as a newspaper writer, but this was like, hey, you can get away with anything!” (Wolfe interview with Bracewell). And, as a result, “I then started doing all sorts of things with the writing to try to bring alive the emotions of situations and gradually to start shaping them like short stories, going from scene to scene” (Wolfe interview with Bracewell). Realizing that magazine readers desired a more “cartoon[ish],” “Pop art” style of writing to keep their interested, he chose to further develop and enhance his distinctive style by attempting to better “bring alive the emotions” of his scenes and subjects. He chose to write non-fiction pieces “like short stories.”
In a 1991 interview with The Paris Review, Wolfe had already elaborated more on how he developed his distinctive style in the first place. Writing pieces for the Sunday magazine of the New York Herald Tribune, he remembers, “I never had the feeling that there were any standards to writing for a Sunday supplement. So you could experiment in any fashion you wished, which I began to do” (Wolfe interview with Plimpton). The articles “were like brain candy, easily thrown away” (Wolfe interview with Plimpton), he continues, which allowed him to write however he liked. And as he experimented, he began to create his own distinctive voice. He embraced that cartoonish, Pop art style of writing that would come to be affiliated with him. “Still,” he says later, “I didn’t think of it as a Tom Wolfe style” (Wolfe interview with Plimpton). It was only after the publication of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby in book form that “I began to get a lot of publicity, people began to write about me and about this style” (Wolfe interview with Plimpton), Wolfe remembers. And as a result, he more fully embraced the style as his own distinctive voice for both journalism and longer non-fiction books.
In his 1989 reflection on the publication of The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) for Harper’s Magazine entitled “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” Wolfe reflected on the literary cultural factors that, perhaps, led him to develop his distinctive “Tom Wolfe style,” as he called it above. The article described, first and foremost, the challenge Wolfe faced in depicting New York City in a novel, but also considered the literary style—realism—that aided him in writing. In it, Wolfe suggests that American intellectuals following the Second World War “set out to create a native intelligentsia on the French or English model, an intellectual aristocracy—socially unaffiliated, beyond class distinctions—active in politics and the arts” (Wolfe, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”). This new native intelligentsia embraced European cultural trends in both art and in literature and attempted to replicate them on the American scene. “Among the fashionable European ideas that began to circulate,” he further states, “was that of the ‘death of the novel,’ by which was meant the realistic novel” (Wolfe, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”). And “by the mid-1960s the conviction was not merely that the realistic novel was no longer possible but that American life no longer deserved the term real” (Wolfe, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”). Here, Wolfe laments the loss of realism in the American literary style. Realism had always guided both his reporting and his writing style and, in fact, he believed “that the future of the fictional novel would be in highly detailed realism based on reporting, a realism more thorough than any currently being attempted, a realism that would portray the individual in intimate and extricable relation to the society around him” (Wolfe, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”). Essentially, through “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” Wolfe explained that as he entered journalism in the 1960s, realism had vanished from American literary fashion, something he regretted. Thus, the style he developed—through years writing “brain candy” pieces in the Sunday magazine of the New York Herald Tribune and, eventually, longer features pieces for Esquire Magazine, as detailed above—intended to revitalize realism. From his in-depth reporting technique, which would come to characterize the New Journalism pioneered by Wolfe and developed further by other figures like Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion, to his exaggerated, cartoonish writing voice, Wolfe attempted to recapture the real, to convey emotion, and to portray the world as it was.
While Wolfe would refer to his distinctive voice as highly realist, literary criticism of the last half-century contextualizes it as postmodern. In an essay in The English Journal from 1988, American literary scholar Tom Romano writes of Wolfe’s distinctive way of “Breaking the Rules in Style” (Romano), of his ability to bend the conventional grammatical structure—characteristic of the realist tradition that Wolfe claims to inhabit—to develop his own distinctive voice, a characteristic of the postmodern. Other critics have acknowledged that, unlike some writers of the postmodernist tradition during the 1960s in particular, Wolfe does attempt to maintain at least a realist plot structure, which follows a chronological structure. In his 1988 article from Cultural Critique entitled “‘Further’: Reflections on Counter-Culture and the Postmodern,” scholar Brent Whelan explores the relationship between realism and postmodernism in Wolfe’s work through his The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), which follows postmodernist author Ken Kesey’s experiences with LSD during the early days of the counterculture movement of the 1960s. “The traces of Wolfe’s manipulations are the marks of adaptation,” Whelan writes, “as Kesey’s amorphous, heterogeneous work is inserted into the stricter confines of the consumable product” (Whelan). In other words, Whelan suggests here that Wolfe—not really a realist—simply transforms the postmodern into a “consumable” form, able to be marketed and interpreted on a popular scale. Wolfe’s style is an “inevitable development” (Whelan) in the postmodern style, he continues. It represents a sort of post-postmodern popular movement that incorporates the writing techniques of postmodernism—that exaggerated, cartoonish style—with a more digestible temporal structure.
More recent literary critical consideration of Wolfe’s distinctive style has agreed with Whelan’s assessment of Wolfe as, ultimately, a bestselling author writing for nothing more than popular consumption. In his 2001 article from The Sewanee Review entitled “Literature in the Age of Hype,” author and editor Sanford Pinsker emphasizes the significance of hype—the significance of the overwhelming, exaggerated advertising like that surrounding modern-day blockbuster movies—in Wolfe’s style. “Known primarily as a journalist, albeit of the new razzle-dazzle sort,” he writes, “Wolfe has fairly dripped with star power” (Pinsker). And “despite his marked talent for rendering certain scenes in vivid detail, with considerable brio” (Pinsker), despite that distinctive voice with which he writes, his novels amount to little significance. “What matters,” he concludes, “is how many copies get sold and then whether or not the novel can be turned into a blockbuster film” (Pinsker). Pinsker’s essay echoes an earlier criticism, written by novelist John Updike for The New Yorker in 1998 and entitled “AWRIIIIIGHHHHHHHHHHT!” to explicitly mock Wolfe’s style, about Wolfe’s 1998 fictional novel A Man in Full. Wolfe’s writing style, he states, “still amounts to entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form” (Updike). It “tries too hard to please us,” with “Wolfe’s exclamatory interjections (‘Packs! Dens! Utterly primitive animal turfs!’ ‘Brute sexual energy! A herd of young male animals!’ ‘More thrashing! Looser teeth! Blood! Bone fragments!’)…like the surges of background music, telling us what to feel, not trusting us to react without supervision” (Updike).
Ultimately, Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, his first fictional novel, published in 1987, fits into this grand context of the author’s distinctive style and the half-century of reception and literary criticism surrounding it. From the very first page of the Prologue to the story—“Chuck! The insolent—he’s right there, right there in front—he just called him a Charlie! Chuck is short for Charlie, and Charlie is the old code name for a down-home white bigot. The insolence of it! The impudence!” (Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities, 3)—that “Tom Wolfe style”—exaggerated, frantic, cartoonish, vulgar, and flamboyant, to name a few characteristics—is evident. Wolfe gives readers, in essence, exactly what they wanted from him: his distinctive voice. And they responded in the way suggested by Pinsker and more cynically by Updike above. They bought his book, they made it a bestseller both in hardcover and in paperback, and they watched the blockbuster movie that would be released (and, as it were, critically panned) three years later. Essentially, The Bonfire of the Vanities became a bestseller because of the distinctive celebrity of its author. The book received little critical praise other than that identifying it as quintessentially Tom Wolfe, but did wholly embody that “Tom Wolfe style” in a new, fictional form.
Birkerts, Sven. “Tom Wolfe.(What?) Tom Wolfe.(Can’t Hear You.) Tom Wolfe!” Esquire (September 1st, 2000).
Pinsker, Sanford. “Literature in the Age of Hype.” The Sewanee Review (Spring 2001).
Romano, Tom. “Breaking the Rules in Style.” The English Journal (December 1988).
Updike, John. “AWRIIIIIGHHHHHHHHHHT!” The New Yorker (November 9th, 1998).
Vonnegut, Kurt. “Infarcted! Tabescent!” The New York Times Book Review (June 27th, 1965).
Whelan, Brent. “‘Further’: Reflections of Counter-Culture and the Postmodern.” Cultural Critique (Winter 1988–1999).
Wolfe, Tom. Interview with George Plimpton: “Tom Wolfe, The Art of Fiction No. 123.” The Paris Review (Spring 1991).
Wolfe, Tom. Interview with Michael Bracewell: “Shock of the New.” Frieze (June–August 2006).
Wolfe, Tom. “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” Harper’s Magazine (November 1989).
Wolfe, Tom. The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987).