Tom Wolfe. Photo: Gasper Tringale.

Tom Wolfe (1930–2018)

Author Tom Wolfe, the white-suited pioneer of New Journalism famous for his acid wit and gentlemanly mien, has died, report Deirdre Carmody and William Grimes of the New York Times. He passed away in a Manhattan hospital on May 14. He was eighty-eight years old.

Wolfe wrote more than seventeen volumes of fiction and nonfiction, including The Painted Word (1975), The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987, one of two books that was later adapted for film), and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), a chronicle of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is considered a classic example of New Journalism, a form of journalistic writing that incorporates novelistic and literary techniques. He also authored numerous articles and essays for publications such as Esquire, New York Magazine, and Harper’s Magazine.

The author, who coined several idioms that have entered the modern American lexicon (such as “radical chic” and “The Me Decade”), dazzled with his language. In the New Republic, Joseph Epstein said: “As a titlist of flamboyance he is without peer in the Western world. His prose style is normally shotgun baroque, sometimes edging over into machine-gun rococo, as in his article on Las Vegas which begins by repeating the word ‘hernia’ fifty-seven times.” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote in the National Review that Wolfe was “probably the most skillful writer in America.”

Of course, he had his detractors, too. “Extraordinarily good writing forces one to contemplate the uncomfortable possibility that Tom Wolfe might yet be seen as our best writer,” Norman Mailer said in the New York Review of Books.How grateful one can feel then for his failures and his final inability to be great—his absence of truly large compass. There may even be an endemic inability to look into the depth of his characters with more than a consummate journalist’s eye.”

But Wolfe was rarely cowed and said of his critics: “It must gall them a bit that everyone—even them—is talking about me, and nobody is talking about them.”