What’s Goin’ On

Remembering Tom Wolfe

New Journalism pioneer and dandy dead at 88


With a twinkle in his blue eyes, an uncanny ear for dialogue and an inexplicable love of exclamation points, italics and onomatopoeia, author Tom Wolfe was the white-suited town crier for the second half of the 20th century.

Wolfe, who died at 88 Monday in New York, aced "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" in 1968, proved he had "The Right Stuff" in 1973 and lit "The Bonfire of the Vanities" in 1987.

His acrobatic prose irked some critics and several of his high-powered peers, including Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving. But Wolfe shook off the snipes like a dusty ascot as he racked up bestseller after bestseller and cashed monster checks.

"It must gall them a bit that everyone—even them—is talking about me," he once observed in an essay, "and nobody is talking about them."

Everybody talked about Wolfe's penchant for cream-colored three-piece suits, white shoes, spats and pocket watches. He dubbed his sartorial taste "neo-pretentious," a look-at-me style that also often applied to his prose.

"It wasn't a trick! She was sincere!" he wrote at the beginning of 1987's "The Bonfire of the Vanities." "And yet zip zip zip zip zip zip zip with a few swift strokes, a few little sentences, she had… tied him in knots!—thongs of guilt and logic! Without even trying!"

For those of you keeping score at home, that's five exclamation points, seven zips, three italicized phrases and an odd back-to-back use of an exclamation point and em dash.

But all of that writerly derring-do was mere icing on a scrumptious multi-tiered cake baked entirely of facts, an award-winning recipe for what came to be known in the 1960s as New Journalism.

"For the who-what-where-when-why of traditional journalism," Newsweek observed in 1965, "[Wolfe] has substituted what he calls 'the wowie!'

Exclamation point. Period. End of story.