Hooking Up with Tom Wolfe

Article excerpt

FOR NEARLY FOUR DECADES THIS CONSERVATIVE HAS BEEN AMERICA'S MOST AMAZING MAN OF LETTERS.

BY JOHN CORRY

PORTRAIT BY EVERETT RAYMOND KINSTLER

If Tom Wolfe is not our best known and most accomplished man of letters, then who is? In the sixties he virtually invented a new kind of newspaper writing. In the seventies, though he still wrote only nonfiction, he said the American novel had become precious and airy, but a marriage with journalism would revive it. In the eighties he wrote The Bon fire of the Vanities, and proved his point. In the nineties he wrote A Man in Full. It got fine reviews and sold a great many copies, and Time put him on its cover. Meanwhile, whatever the reason, he upset some other men of letters. Norman Mailer, John Updike, and John Irving all insisted Wolfe was only a journalist, and not a real novelist like any of them: In a way they were half right. Wolfe is both a novelist and a journalist. In fact, even though you may not think of him that way, he is the quintessential, and probably most admired, influential, and imitated journalist of our time. Mailer, Updike, and Irving may only have been jealous. Anyway, Wolfe handled them in a way appropriate for a man of letters. In an essay called "My Three Stooges," he said they reminded him of Larry, Moe, and Curly.

The essay appears in Hooking Up, a new collection of Wolfe's work, including the novella "Ambush at Fort Bragg" and a sampling of his pieces from over the years. So return now to the early sixties, when all of this began. Wolfe was a general assignment reporter on the old Herald Tribune. The Trib was losing circulation and advertising to the New York Times, and wanted to re-invent itself. Consequently it changed the name of its Sunday supplement to New York, and hired Clay Felker to be its editor. Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin were its principal writers, and in no time at all it attracted attention. How could it not? Newspaper writing then was mostly formulaic, and nowhere more so than at the Trib's great rival, the Times-who, what, when, and where in the first paragraph, with nothing murky, everything clear, and adjectives at a minimum. But this is how Wolfe began an article on Las Vegas:

"Hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia..." and after a while, "HERNia, hernia, HERNia..." and then "eight is the point, the point is eight," and then more "HERNias" and "hernias," and finally a quote: "What is all this hernia, hernia stuff?"

And this is how he ended a two-part series on the New Yorker that angered, shocked and secretly entertained the Eastern Seaboard literary, journalistic and even political establishments:

"Harold Ross! pat pat pat pat pat pat pat pat, four-four, we were all very hippy along the Mississippi in naughty naughty naughty oughty oughty oughty-eight. Done and done! Preserved! Shawn, God bless you! Pat pat pat pat pat pat pat."

Sentences like that, of course, could make Wolfe look like a show-off or poseur, a flash in the pan whom respectable reporters and editors need not take seriously. But at the same time he made them uneasy. What if he really was onto something? At the Times, the newsroom was divided. Younger reporters thought Wolfe was on to something; older ones thought not. In fact, Wolfe was on to what soon would be called the New Journalism, and he would become its best-known practitioner. The techniques used to write fiction could now be used to write news stories. This led to livelier and more provocative stories, but there were also unfortunate side effects. The anonymous flyon-the-wall school of reporting gave way to lookat-me-now. Journalists would write themselves into their stories, believing that they were at least as interesting and probably more important than what they were writing about. They also strained for special effects. Wolfe could use ellipses... write in italics, and sometimes end sentences with dashes-so why couldn't they? …