Tom Wolfe, Best-Selling Author And Genre-Breaking Journalist, Dies At 88 The author of The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff used to give himself a quota of 10 triple-spaced pages per day. He also experimented with literary techniques in his nonfiction.
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Tom Wolfe, Best-Selling Author And Genre-Breaking Journalist, Dies At 88

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Tom Wolfe, Best-Selling Author And Genre-Breaking Journalist, Dies At 88

Tom Wolfe, Best-Selling Author And Genre-Breaking Journalist, Dies At 88

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Tom Wolfe created a new type of journalism over the course of his half-century career. Wolfe coined phrases that became part of the American lexicon in such nonfiction bestsellers as "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," his account of fellow author Ken Kesey's psychedelic adventures, also "The Right Stuff" about the early years of the space program. Wolfe also wrote the best-selling novel "The Bonfire Of The Vanities." Wolfe died yesterday in a Manhattan hospital of undisclosed causes. He was 88 years old. Tom Vitale has this appreciation.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Tom Wolfe was an original. He was a star baseball player in his hometown of Richmond, Va., who had a tryout with the New York Giants. He was a novelist who didn't start with a character or a plot but an idea. In 1987, wearing his signature white suit, Wolfe told me how he began his first novel, a panoramic story of New York society.


TOM WOLFE: I looked at the whole city first. And I wanted to do New York high and low. And I figured Wall Street could stand for the high end, and at the low end there would be what you find caught up in the criminal mechanism in the Bronx. And that once I zeroed in on these areas, I would then find the characters.

VITALE: The novel that grew out of Wolfe's research was the tale of Sherman McCoy, a wealthy bond trader who loses everything after a wrong turn in the South Bronx with his mistress in the passenger seat.


WOLFE: (Reading) Two figures, two young men, black, on the ramp coming up behind him. Boston Celtics - the one nearest him had a silvery basketball warm-up jacket with Celtics written across the chest. He was no more than five or six steps away, powerfully built. His jacket was open, a white T-shirt, tremendous chest muscles, square face, wide jaws, a wide mouth. What was that look? Hunter. Predator.

VITALE: "The Bonfire Of The Vanities" was a huge critical and commercial success. Tom Wolfe had written the novel from the same you-are-there, stream of consciousness, first-person perspective that he pioneered in his nonfiction 20 years earlier.


WOLFE: I've always contended, honestly, on a theoretical level that the techniques for fiction and nonfiction were interchangeable, and that the things that work in nonfiction would work in fiction and vice versa.

VITALE: Tom Wolfe began working as a newspaper reporter first for The Washington Post, then the New York Herald Tribune. He developed a unique style, incorporating literary techniques, interior monologues, amped-up prose, eccentric punctuation. It was called the New Journalism.

LEV GROSSMAN: It was a time when a lot of writers and a lot of artists in general I think were turning inward. And Wolfe didn't do that. Wolfe turned outwards.

VITALE: Lev Grossman is the former book critic for Time magazine.

GROSSMAN: He was a guy who was interested in other people - how they thought and how they did things and how the things they did affected the world around them.

VITALE: Grossman says Wolfe not only wrote about other people...

GROSSMAN: He showed us how to walk into a cocktail party, a NASA training center, how to walk down the street and see in the world around us this incredible drama. And "The Right Stuff" was the book for me. It reminded me, in case I'd forgotten, that the world is an incredible place.

VITALE: In 1979, Wolfe published "The Right Stuff," an account of the military test pilots who became America's first astronauts. Four years later, the book was adapted as a feature film.


DAVID CLENNON: (As Liaison Man) Pretty soon every fighter jock, ever rocket ace, every rat-racer in the country will be headed this way, each one of them wanting to push the outside of the envelope and get to the top of the pyramid.

VITALE: In "The Right Stuff," Wolfe popularized the phrase pushing the envelope. The title of Wolfe's nonfiction book about Leonard Bernstein's fundraiser for the Black Panthers, "Radical Chic," became a catchphrase for leftist liberals. In a New York magazine article, Wolfe dubbed the 1970s the Me Decade. Critic Lev Grossman says these phrases became part of the American language because they were dead-on.

GROSSMAN: It was because he was an enormously forceful observer. And he was not afraid of making strong claims about what was happening in reality. And people heard him, and they repeated what he said 'cause he was right.

VITALE: To get it right, Tom Wolfe said, first he did extensive research. Then he made an exhaustive outline.


WOLFE: Then you can - I think you can start having fun. I like to use the technique of what I think of as a controlled trance. I'll actually sit in front of the typewriter, close my eyes, and then try to imagine myself into the particular scene. I give myself a quota each day of 10 triple-spaced pages on a typewriter. And that comes out to - for me anywhere from 1,600 to 1,800 words. That's not all that hard to do.

VITALE: All those words started a revolution in nonfiction that's still going on, says critic Lev Grossman.

GROSSMAN: Everything that bloggers have done for journalism - and I personally believe they've done a lot - Wolfe did it first. He did it 30 years earlier. And he did it better. And I think we're still catching up to him.

VITALE: Author Tom Wolfe died yesterday. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.


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